Breakfast with United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann: Today’s topic – Michael Bradley’s rise

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I was among a small group of journalists who had breakfast recently with Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team coach whose methods and player selection tendencies can sometimes lean to the less conventional. The results so far have been mostly favorable, even if the aesthetic hasn’t always risen to expectation.

Over the next week or so, we will extract one element each day of the extremely informative conversation, where Klinsmann expanded candidly on subjects ranging from Jozy Altidore to evolving player roles to Jermaine Jones to future matches and all points in between.

Today’s topic: Michael Bradley’s rise

It would be easy to examine the U.S. player pool and see someone like Geoff Cameron as making greatest progress over the past 18 months. He certainly has rocketed up in the order during Jurgen Klinsmann’s time in charge.

Other up-and-comers have gone from somewhere near the international-level starting line to full speed, too, such as Fabian Johnson, Terrence Boyd, Danny Williams or Herculez Gomez.

But is it possible that the biggest advance, considering tangible and intangible elements, has been Michael Bradley’s?

His starting point was further ahead, to be sure … but look where the guy is today:

Bradley has clearly become the most important player in this U.S. program’s current version, an authoritative cop on the beat, the two-way man who makes the midfield go. He’s the top passer in midfield, a reliable tackler, a standard bearer in covering ground and a man who has become more tactically astute thanks to his year and a half in a league that emphasizes shape, cover and team movement, Italy’s Serie A.

Looking back over Klinsmann’s first weeks and months in charge, there were hints that the coach wanted to see how the team shaped up without the stoic midfielder who had been such a central presence under Bob Bradley, Michael’s father. After a start in Klinsmann’s debut against Mexico in August of 2011, Bradley missed starts against Costa Rica, Belgium, Honduras, Ecuador and France.

The United States lost four of those contests 1-0; the one “W” was registered at home against Honduras by the same score.

Bradley was back in the starting lineup on No. 15, 2011, in what would become Klinsmann’s breakthrough contest, a worthy 3-2 win at Slovenia. Even then, Klinsmann started Bradley on the right of a midfield diamond rather than in the middle.

Bradley was easily the best player on the field that cold night in Eastern Europe – and Klinsmann has not wanted him out of the starting lineup since.

The U.S. coach now says Bradley embodies exactly what he wants from every individual, the constant pursuit of individual betterment. Even more, Klinsmann sees what everyone else sees: a more balanced presence about Bradley now, a married man settled in his personal life, and one who may be freer to stand as team leader now that his father no longer is in charge.

Klinsmann also recognizes this “new Bradley” as a product of routine cycling among team elements, roles and chemistry. Group dynamics evolve with the World Cup cycles in national teams, Klinsmann says.

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He also said Bradley’s case perfectly illustrates why players should perennially push themselves from personal comfort zones with their club situations. He respects the way Bradley (and Clint Dempsey, too) has smartly maneuvered through the hierarchy of Europe’s club scene, from Heerenveen to Borussia Mönchengladbach to Aston Villa (on a short loan) to Chievo and now to Roma.

Every stop became a valuable “re-set,” Klinsmann said, another starting point. He credited both Bradley and Dempsey for recognizing the re-set and fighting like mad to rise up, not just to meet the new level but to grind their way to the top of it. To conquer it.

“They have to fight through the whole thing again,” Klinsmann said.

He mentioned how Dempsey is starting at Tottenham, never mind that less-than-perfect launch into life at White Hart Lane, the late leap into Spurs’ season.

“Roma is the same way [with Bradley],” Klinsmann said. “They have two or three guys there that are pretty much on the same level. These are all national team players from different countries.

“So this is what we need, that they carry that spirit and experience back into our camps. And then they can tell these younger guys, ‘It’s not coming automatically for you. You have to work for it. You have to fight through it. Don’t settle early.’ ”

Younger players can learn so much from that kind of commitment to excellence, Klinsmann said. He drew the circle back to Jozy Altidore.

“There’s a whole other level, two or three levels, waiting for Jozy.” He just need look at Bradley for the blueprint on getting there.

Anyone watching the games can see what Bradley means to the product on the field. Klinsmann sees the bigger picture – and Bradley’s contributions outside the 90-minute windows might be equally important.

MORE of the Klinsmann conversation …

 

Report: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Eriksen

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After months of posturing and working the back channels, it would appear that Christian Eriksen is close to getting his transfer away from Tottenham Hotspur.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

After months of posturing and holding firm, it would appear that Tottenham are close to getting their desired transfer fee for Eriksen despite his contract having only six months remaining.

After months of posturing and unsettling the 27-year-old star, it would appear that Inter Milan are close to getting their Danish international playmaker.

In the end, it would appear that everyone is going to get what they want, only no one truly gets what they want. Spurs spent the last year trying to sign Eriksen to a new contract; Eriksen wanted to leave in the summer and will feel like they wasted six months of his career; much like Inter would have been desperate to bolster their squad in the summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong ]

$22 million — the amount Spurs will reportedly receive from Inter — will hardly be enough to replace such an influential player, therefore Spurs come out of this long-running saga the worst of the bunch.

As for Eriksen and Inter, it’ll be a challenge for the player to immediately find his footing and shine ever so brightly in the midst of a title race, especially after the side has already slumped to back-to-back draws and fallen four points back of Juventus. Though, reportedly tripling his wages from Spurs to Inter leaves Eriksen the biggest winner in a mostly no-win situation.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.