Tim Howard next to defuse U.S. man’s national team controversy (and the developing picture)

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The piece that’s become the talk of the U.S. Soccer world was already a six-of-one-half kind of story, but with a couple of veterans going on record to clarify some of the depictions given to the Sporting News, if feels like there’s some record-straightening going on. Carlos Bocanegra was quick to respond via his Facebook, talking up some of Jurgen Klinsmann’s positive qualities. Now Tim Howard’s gone on record with Soccer by Ives to address the idea of a locker room divided. If Steve Cherundolo and Clint Dempsey chime in, this story may get double back on itself. Or worse.

First, let’s talk Tim Howard. The Everton keeper is out of this week’s qualifiers with broken bones in his back. When he’s in the team, he’s recognized as one of the its leaders, a status that makes his comments to SBI all the more meaningful:

“Our team has always been made up of players who come from different backgrounds, which has been a source of strength for the group. No matter where players are from, the pride in wearing the U.S. shirt is the only thing that matter (sic) to us.

“We have a great group of guys who are all committed to the cause, and the morale and the camaraderie remains high. We are completely unified in our ultimate goal, which is to qualify for the World Cup.”

Obviously these comments only speak to one of many concerns raised by players in Sporting News’ work, but the idea of a divided locker room — one which pitted German-American in a type of culturally-driven split — was one of the more concerning aspects of yesterday’s feature. But between Bocanegra and Howard we have two players who’ve alluded to they unity (Bocanegra’s word) and camaraderie (Howard’s) as a plus. If the locker room isn’t exactly fraternal, I’m inclined to think it’s tenable.

This also gets back to what we discussed in the Bocanegra post. Are these comments just window dressing from a leader or an earnest rebuttal? Given Bocanegra’s role in the team, you can see the virtues of maintaining a public face. But Howard? He’s not the captain. He could stay quiet, yet he’s spoken out.

We’ll double back on this later today, but these two public clarifications bring up a number of concerns:

  • First, this story may have more legs and angles than we thought. If the Sporting News’ story was allowed to run its course, it might die out or be overshadowed come Friday – a one-time bomb. But the life cycle for this story may be longer than we thought (and even from the team’s point of view, that may not be a bad thing).
  • Second, a locker room divided on cultural lines? You don’t say. Shock-gasp-awe. That doesn’t mean the locker room is poisonous, about to explode, or even out of the ordinary. This is just how people tend to organize themselves, for better or worse. More on this later.
  • Third, the Sporting News claimed 22 sources in and around the team, all with a certain level of knowledge of U.S. Soccer. It might be time for us to start seriously considering who these sources could be, because it’s no secret that Klinsmann’s hiring has never been fully loved by the entire establishment. If a revered team member is giving up the worst on Klinsmann, that’s telling. If it’s a former player who never agreed with the hire in the first place, we need to consider the comments in a completely different light.
  • Fourth, there is the risk of a backlash overshadowing the real issues. The concerns brought up by Sporting News are real. The question is more of magnitude than existence. Comments like Bocanegra’s or Howard’s shouldn’t be used to disregard the findings from SN’s work.
  • And finally, the more people that come out clarifying this story, the easy it’s going to be to identify those anonymous sources. And if you think things are bad now (and they’re not, really), it could get worse if people are able to zero in on the dissectors who helped light a powder keg before a World Cup qualifier.

World Cup referees miss yet another physical penalty in box

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Let’s get this out of the way first: VAR (Video-Assistant Refereeing) has been a fabulous addition to the game of soccer. In the 2018 World Cup, the availability of replay has done nothing but improve the ability of referees to correctly officiate the game, providing an outlet for mistakes to be corrected. Earlier on Friday, a referee gave a penalty to Brazil for a foul on Neymar, but with VAR applied correctly, the penalty was wiped off after it was determined Neymar went down easily. The game continued as it should, and a clear and obvious error was erased.

Unfortunately, despite the clear improvement to the game VAR provides, there’s still some work to be done in one very specific area of the game.

[ MORE: Recap of Serbia 1-2 Switzerland ]

On multiple occasions this World Cup, referees have missed wrestling matches in the penalty area, allowing defenders to essentially get away with murder instead of awarding attackers a deserved penalty. The worst example of this yet took place in the 66th minute of the 1-1 draw between Serbia and Switzerland in Kaliningrad.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, already with a goal to his name early in the match, went up to meet a set-piece delivery with his head. He was fully bear-hugged by Switzerland captain Steven Lichtsteiner, and while being wrapped up, was then rugby tackled by Swiss central defender Fabian Schar.

Yet somehow, Mitrovic was called for the foul, as the referee whistled him for ending up over the back of his defender on a genuine attempt to play the ball.

With every replay shown, it became more and more evident that not only should a penalty have been awarded, but the referee missed a clear and obvious call. Yet the match referee, German Felix Brych, was given no assistance from the VAR booth, left on an island after blowing the call.

There have been so many instances of this throughout the tournament, despite a public directive reportedly given by FIFA to referees asking them to crack down on physical play in the box, according to Fox rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik. England striker Harry Kane was wrestled to the ground numerous times against Tunisia with no call, while many Egypt fans felt hard done by after Mohamed Salah was bullied in the box repeatedly against Russia.

The more defenders can get away with while defending set pieces in front of net, the more the game will be muddied by controversy, clouding an otherwise glittering debut for VAR on the international stage. That’s frustrating.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Late Shaqiri break shatters Serbian hearts

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One of the most exciting games of the 2018 World Cup proved entertaining from start to finish, ended by a stunning breakaway goal by Xherdan Shaqiri that capped a 2-1 Switzerland comeback victory over Serbia.

The start of the game was all Serbia, with Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic the most dangerous option up front, and he delivered on that promise just five minutes in. After a pair of chances just kept out by Yann Sommer, Mitrovic powered in a header off a Dusan Tadic cross to put Serbia in front early on.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The goal confirmed yet another game without a 0-0 draw, 26 in a row to start the tournament, marking the World Cup record set back in 1954 when every single game in the Switzerland event featured a goal.

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After the goal, the game exploded, with Serbia looking to double its lead and Switzerland hoping to gain a grip on the match. Without a second coming, Switzlerland began to build promisingly, and had its first chance right on the half-hour mark as Steven Zuber through-ball sprung Blerim Dzemaili, but his sliding effort was saved brilliantly by Vladimir Stojkovic at the last second. They had a second chance minutes later, but for some reason Xherdan Shaqiri decided for one too many crosses rather than taking the open shot himself.

Serbia didn’t just look to see out the first half, though, as the star of the first half Dusan Tadic nearly gave his team another lift. First, he delivered a fabulous corner that stunningly skipped through the box untouched. Then, just before the break, Tadic came agonizingly close to what would have been a fabulous half-volley strike that flew viciously wide.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

After the break, the back-and-forth action continued, and Granit Xhaka struck an absolute stunner on the counter to level the match seven minutes into the second half. Shaquiri’s initial attempt from the right edge of the box was blocked and the rebound fell to the Arsenal midfielder outside the penalty area. His follow-up was a laser, curling through the defense and past a wrong-footed Stojkovic.

The chaos continued, with Serbia swinging back into the initiative. Mitrovic had a penalty shout turned down after being bear-hugged and wrestled to the ground by a pair of defenders, and minutes later Aleksandr Kolarov delivered a luscious cross into the box but nobody was there to tap it home.

Serbia began to tire as the game inched towards the final minutes, and Switzerland had most of the late pressure. One moment of brilliance caught the Serbians sleeping, and it proved the difference. Mario Gavranovic fed Shaqiri on the break from his own half, and free on goal the Stoke City winger made no mistake as the last ticks of regulation came off.

The win for Switzerland moves them to four points through the first two matches, leaving them level atop Group E with Brazil on points but in second thanks to an inferior goal differential. Serbia, meanwhile, sits third with three points. Switzerland would advance to the knockout stage with a win or draw in their final match against Costa Rica, while the winner of Brazil vs. Serbia will advance as well, with Brazil advancing in the event of a draw.

Southgate asks media to “help the team” after lineup leak

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England management is unhappy with the media after a coach was snapped with the proposed lineup for Saturday’s match against Panama.

Assistant manager Steve Holland was photographed holding a teamsheet that appeared to show a pair of changes in the England attack, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford partnering with Harry Kane up front. While Southgate attempted to play down the leak, stating the piece of paper was “just a squad list” and “the next sheet has different players in different positions,” he was also clearly frustrated with the media’s decision to run the photos.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“Obviously any time, if we were to give the opposition the opportunity of having our team it’s a disadvantage to us,” Southgate said in his pre-match press conference. “So of course our media has to decide whether they want to help the team or not.

The teamsheet showed no changes to the defense, with the team playing a three-center-back system as Kyle Walker continues his role along that back line. Kieran Trippier stays in at wing-back opposite Ashley Young, with Jordan Henderson sitting in the midfield between them. Jesse Lingard retains his place in the attack centrally with help from the addition of Loftus-Cheek, and the pair of strikers ahead of them.

Walker was also asked about the leak, and he said Holland apologized to the team, even if they felt it was unnecessary. “He’s apologised to us all in training, which we had a bit of banter with him about, and that was it.”

“I think if you guys try to keep it to yourself and don’t bring it out to the world,” Walker added, “because it’s not going to help us come the later stages of the tournament, please God we get there. All the rest of the world’s seen our team now, if that is the team or if not. As I say, you guys have to do your little bit, so if you could just please help us with that it would be polite.”

Liverpool to lose $82m Alisson to Real; Klopp turns to Lazio GK?

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Brazilian national team starter and Liverpool transfer target Alisson looks increasingly likely to only see Anfield as a visitor.

Italian outlet Corriere dello Sport says Real Madrid is going to tempt Roma with an $82 million bid that could rise with add-ons.

[ MORE: Lozano to Barcelona? ]

And Real would also offer a near $6 million annual salary to the Brazilian backstop.

It’s coincidence that this news comes on the day that both Alisson and current Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas were at opposite ends of the pitch.

Alisson had little to do, while Costa Rican backstop Navas was outstanding until Philippe Coutinho and Neymar scored during stoppage time.

Meanwhile, TalkSport says the Reds are in on a different Serie A goalkeeper: Lazio’s Albanian backstop Thomas Strakosha.

The 23-year-old old played all 38 league games for the Roman club this season.