A United States friendly against Belgium “today” looks much different than one “yesterday”

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At almost any point of the last 20 years, a national team friendly against Belgium would rate an “Oh, that’s nice,” from most U.S. Soccer supporters. A little bit like average pizza for lunch; it’s pizza and all, and that’s not terrible, but you know there are better slices out there.

Since some better days in the 80s, Belgium has dwelled in the middle class of European soccer, leaning toward the bottom end of the continent’s mid-level over the last decade or so.

But today’s Belgium is absolutely brimming with bright potential. Which is why a May 29 U.S. friendly at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, just announced today by U.S. Soccer, is something U.S. supporters can truly toast.

From U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann: “Belgium is definitely a team on the rise. If you look at their roster, they have quality players from top to bottom who are on some of the biggest clubs in Europe. It’s a big opportunity for us and a great way to start the summer as we prepare for the World Cup qualifiers.”

Belgium is currently tied with Croatia atop Group A in World Cup qualifying out of Europe. No wonder, really, when a young standout like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard has trouble making the starting lineup in those qualifiers. He was on the bench to start Belgian’s contest last fall at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, where Marc Wilmots’ team was dominant in a 2-0 win.

With a defense orchestrated by Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany (pictured in Belgian uniform), a midfield run buy Everton’s Marouane Fellaini and Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele, plus stars in the making like Hazard and Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke to score the goals, this truly is one of Europe’s wow-wow sides of the moment.

And about the team spirit and accord that can sometimes be difficult in a land with competing cultures and languages?  Team captain Kompany says that part is right as can be these days.

VIDEO: de Bruyne delivers gorgeous assist on Lukaku goal

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It took a little bit of patience, but Romelu Lukaku finally got on the scoresheet at the 2018 World Cup, thanks to a delicious assist from crosstown club rival Kevin de Bruyne.

The Manchester City playmaker delivered a spectacular outside-of-the-boot cross into the box, where Lukaku’s head met it and guided it towards the far post for Belgium’s second goal of the day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Arsenal close in on Leno; Man City near Jorginho signing, and more

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Arsenal looks like it will have a new man between the pipes for next season.

According to a report from German publication SportBild, Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno will be introduced as an Arsenal player on Tuesday, after a reported $23-29 million transfer fee. The 26-year-old was on Germany’s 35-man pre-World Cup squad, but was one of the last cuts as Joachim Low went with Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Kevin Trapp in Russia.

Leno became the full-time starter for Leverkusen as a 20-year-old, and has held the position of the No. 1 for the last six seasons, earning plenty of Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League experience along the way.

It’s unclear what will happen to current Arsenal No. 1 Petr Cech. The 36-year-old Premier League legend experienced one of his worst seasons in net for Arsenal and he could begin the season as a backup, unless he moves to a new club. He reportedly has a contract through 2019.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from around the Premier League and Europe.

(more…)

VIDEO: Mertens scores wonderstrike for Belgium

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After a frustrating 45 minutes, it took only two minutes for Belgium to finally get on the board, even if it was a goal sprinkled with magic dust.

Off a partially cleared ball on the right side of the box, Belgium attacker Dries Mertens whalloped a shot that arced over Panama (and former LA Galaxy) goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, giving Belgium a 1-0 lead.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Croatia’s Kalinic sent home from World Cup

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It’s only been five days, and we have our first World Cup dismissal.

According to a bombshell report out of Croatia, Croatia National Team head coach Zlatko Dalic has sent home striker Nikola Kalinic from the team’s camp, after the AC Milan player reportedly refused to be a substitute during Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

[Update: The Croatia FA confirmed the decision, releasing this statement from Dalic. “During the Nigeria encounter, Kalinić was warming up and was supposed to come on in the second half. However, he then stated that he wasn’t ready to come on due to a back issue. The same thing happened during the Brazil friendly in England, as well as before the practice session on Sunday. I have calmly accepted that, and since I need my players fit and ready to play, I have made this decision.”]

The report states that Kalinic refused to come on due to an injury, but Dalic had said recently that his team had no injuries that would keep players out, potentially meaning that Kalinic used the injury claim as an excuse.

Croatia’s FA is expected to confirm the news on Monday.

After a rough season at AC Milan, with just six league goals in 31 Serie A appearances, Kalinic, at 30, is likely finished with the Vatreni. He scored three goals in World Cup qualifying but hasn’t started for Croatia since a 2-0 win over Peru in March. Kalinic did score against Spain in Croatia’s shock 2-1 win exactly two years prior to Saturday’s match.

He was deemed second choice to Mario Mandzukic as the center forward up top, but was reportedly asked to spell Mandzukic during Croatia’s match against Nigeria, and Kalinic reportedly refused.

If true, Croatia will continue with 22 players for the remainder of the tournament.