Schedule set for U.S. final round World Cup qualifying

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The United States’ schedule for final round 2014 World Cup qualifying looks like a panini sandwich on hard, crusty bread: It’s tough and a little abrasive on the outsides but softer and more inviting in the middle.

It starts with a relative high degree of difficulty and finishes roughly the same, but the run of four home games over five match dates in the middle provides the more inviting part, where manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s men surely must make their move.

The “wheres” remain TBD, but the “whos” and the “whens” for final round CONCACAF World Cup qualifying are out.

The region’s governing body held its draw last night in Miami, filling in the skeleton schedule for the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Jamaica. The top three qualify for Brazil 2014; the fourth-place finisher goes to a home-and-away play-in.

For Klinsmann’s team it begins in San Pedro Sula against a strong and confident Honduran team boosted by a recent series of successes. That’s the first of a slate where the early rounds threaten to leave U.S. fans in a state of high anxiety.

Here is the schedule … then we’ll go over several important points and considerations:

source:

  • Alas, there will be no La Guerra Fria Tres (The Cold War III). That was the branding for a previous pair of very chilly winter matches against Mexico. As the draw approached, U.S. fans in the know wanted nothing more than to open on Feb. 6 against Mexico at home. That match almost certainly would have gone to Columbus, site of triumphs in La Guerra Fria and La Guerra Fria Dos.
  • Don’t be shocked it things look a bit bleak after four rounds. In fact, everyone might just brace for it. Opening in Honduras and then playing away at Mexico and Jamaica in Rounds 3 and 4 leaves the United States facing a real possibility of resting with some worry near the bottom of the group nearing the halfway pole. In that case …
  • The June 11 contest  at home against Panama at home will be an absolute, no-questions asked, gotta-win, white knuckler.

(MORE: Additional notes and quotes from Wednesday’s draw)

  • Generally speaking, all home games can be classified as such. And generally speaking, the United States gets its business done: The United States has not lost a World Cup qualifying match at home since 2001.
  • Klinsmann admits that opening on the road is hardly ideal. “But if you don’t have the first game at home you make the best out of it,” he said.
  • Finishing on the road at Panama is a tough spot. If the United States needs a result in that one, look out. Panama is a tougher side than past years’ versions. Remember last year’s Gold Cup, when the Panamanians became the first team to defeat the United States in the tournament’s group phase?

Atletico Madrid roster for MLS All-Star Game includes Felix

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Major League Soccer fans will get a good luck at one of the hottest prospects in world soccer when the MLS All Stars take on Atletico Madrid in next week’s MLS All Star Game.

Joao Felix, the $142 million 19-year-old, is among the roster announced by Diego Simeone for the match.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

Felix scored 20 times with 11 assists in 40 matches for Benfica before moving to Atleti in the summer. Those numbers include a hat trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarterfinals first leg.

The other stars will be there, too, provided no transfers happen in the interim. Koke, Thomas Lemar, Diego Costa, and Saul Niguez are in the squad.

New Atleti defender Kieran Trippier and longtime El Tri hero Hector Herrera will also be sure to help drive attendance in Orlando City.

The full roster is here.

Leagues Cup preview: MLS gets its next shot at Liga MX

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It’s not a typo; The s is very real.

The Leagues Cup — not the League Cup — is the new competition pitting Major League Soccer sides against some of the top sides from Mexico’s Liga MX.

The tournament has been expanded before it’s even seen a ball kicked in competition, as the second edition with go from eight to 16 teams.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

For now, though, we’ve got four American and four Mexican sides meeting over the next two months in a bid for North American supremacy not unlike a CONCACAF Champions League stripped of all the minnows.

Much like the CCL, the Mexican sides will be expected to triumph, even with all of the quarterfinals being staged in the United States.

Chicago Fire hosts Cruz Azul on Tuesday, followed by the LA Galaxy’s visit from Club Tijuana.

Wednesday will see the Houston Dynamo host Club America, and Tigres UANL at Real Salt Lake.

The winners meet Aug. 20, while the final will be played Sept. 18 in Las Vegas.

There’s a lot of promise in this, and it gives MLS another chance to make some statements about the distance between it and Liga MX. The Mexican sides have flat out dominated the CCL, and it’s not difficult to make the same prediction for this tournament.

But, like many tournaments, it also gives success-starved clubs a chance to give their fans something big and their players a tonic. For Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s Chicago, for one, it’s a huge opportunity. And for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy, it’s a look toward another piece of silverware for one of the world’s biggest trophy cases.

USMNT prospect Ledezma earns praise from van Nistelrooy

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Even for talents of the highest levels with top soccer education, sometimes a kid’s gotta learn how to eat.

Richard “Richie” Ledezma, 18, is in the midst of his first year at Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven, a spot which beckoned after a five-match, one-goal season in the USL with Real Monarchs of the USL.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Ledezma starred for U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup after his first half-season with PSV, which saw him play with the U-19s while trying to lose some weight.

From Goal.com:

“PSV help me with my nutrition, with my food and how I eat. It’s the quantity of food you eat, I guess,” he added. “Because I came a little chubby, when I got here, I guess. They all called me ‘fatty’ and stuff, so I was like, cool, you know? So no more McDonald’s.”

Goal’s James Westwood had a wide-ranging interview with Ledezma and also spoke with soccer royalty: longtime Real Madrid and Manchester United scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was Ledezma’s coach with the U-19s.

“He’s making a difference in midfield with very quick-thinking passes, movement, can score a goal, play people in, he’s creating chances for the whole team.”

That’s not just good praise from a legend, but a solid sign for fans of the United States men’s national team. A proper No. 10 or playmaking midfielder could allow Gregg Berhalter or another future USMNT coach to use Christian Pulisic on the wings.

Ledezma has some work to do before he breaks into the first team of the Dutch runners-up, who have signed former Stoke City man Ibrahim Afellay and has Gaston Pereiro in the fold as well.

Newcastle reportedly in for $28M mercurial Nice attacker

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L’Equipe says that Newcastle United have returned to Nice in the hopes of landing Allan Saint-Maximin.

The Ligue 1 outfit wants $28 million for the playmaker, who could team up with Miguel Almiron and (maybe) Joelinton to give the Magpies a much-improved attack.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Saint-Maximin, 22, has 10 goals and 10 assists across his last two seasons with Nice, and played everywhere in attack for Patrick Vieira: both wings, center forward, second striker, attacking mid… even some left and right midfield.

The player, however, has been a headache for Vieira at times, with the manager saying Saint-Maximin believes that he has enough talent to reach the highest level without the required amount of work.

That said, the youngster’s skill set is electric. He’s a March birth date, too, so a relatively young 22. That $28 million would be another transfer record broken for Newcastle, assuming it happens ahead of the Joelinton move.

Or… as Newcastle fan knows, neither could go through.