Most pressure on a U.S. World Cup qualifier in a decade

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DENVER – All World Cup qualifiers come with pressure. The home matches come with extra helpings; everyone knows the recipe for World Cup qualification means picking off points on the road, but it demands wins at home.

So there’s always a load to bear in these things.

But the weight of this one feels different. The United States may not be wearing the heaviness as a burden, not just yet, but it’s there.

I wondered when the last the United States marched into a home stadium for a qualifier with as much pressure attached? Because it has surely been a while.

More than a decade, it seems.

Every round has a match or two where a result is needed or even required, or very bad things will happen. Heck, there was even a scenario last fall where a loss in the semifinal round finale could have seen the American’s (gasp!) tumble completely out of the World Cup. As in, “out!”  No Brazil 2014, no chance at World Cup glory – but firings and recriminations surely arriving in force, at military grade strength.

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But even then, at home against Guatemala, the United States players and staff had a certain assuredness, and media members who were not prone to dramatic overreaction understood the true odds, which still leaned heavily the U.S. way. Sure enough, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team rolled into the final round with a comfortable win that night  outside  Kansas City.

A loss tonight does not mean elimination. But … Lose tonight and lose Tuesday in Mexico (likely) and things could unravel completely inside a camp already showing fissure. Hard questions about Klinsmann and whether he needs immediate replacement will pepper the U.S. camp, and federation president Sunil Gulati would be forced to think seriously about making a huge move prior to the next team gathering in mid-May.

I talked to Kasey Keller during yesterday’s U.S. practice. The longtime U.S. goalkeeper remembers the qualifier back in October of 2001 as having an enormous weight attached.

The team had lost three in a row, including one at home (the last qualifier loss on U.S. soil, in fact) and were sitting a meager fourth in a six-team group with two contests remaining, perilously close to not qualifying for World Cup 2002 in Asia.

(Plus, no team carrying the United States banner had participated in a major event since 9/11 the attacks, so there was added patriotic weight, as well.)

Before that, the qualifier in Portland back in 1997, where Tab Ramos came through with an enormous lift toward France ’98, started with so much on the line. (Still one of the best atmospheres I’ve seen and felt for a U.S. World Cup qualifier.)

The weight is always there, but rarely is it as massive as this one.

Kane named England captain, set to break record

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Call him captain Kane.

The FA confirmed on Tuesday that Harry Kane would captain England at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he’ll break a record for being the youngest England captain at a World Cup. At just 24-years of age, Kane appears wise beyond his years and has over the past World Cup cycle developed into arguably the best striker in the Premier League, if not one of the top center forwards in the world.

The previous youngest England captain was the late, great Bobby Moore, who was 25-years old at the 1966 World Cup – hosted of course by England.

Considering the overall youth movement within the England ranks, this comes as a smart decision from manager Gareth Southgate. Though strikers aren’t usually made captains, he leads the line by example and has displayed great leadership for Tottenham over the last two years. In addition, should he remain consistent in his club and country form, he could be an England captain for another eight years or so.

In the last two World Cups, England has gone with the veteran hand for captain, with Steven Gerrard wearing the armband for both. But England was knocked out in the Round of 16 in 2010 and didn’t make it out of the group stage in 2014, which, combined with the shocking defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016, necessitated a change in management and culture.

Arsenal, Puma drop new kit for upcoming season

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Arsenal will have a new home kit next year, but there’s a bit of a twist compared to the old reliable we know and love.

Puma and Arsenal released the club’s 2018-2019 home kit on Tuesday morning, featuring a red and white top with a “pulse” design through the center, which displays different shades of red to symbolize the heartbeat of the club, and lighter red on the white sleeves. White shorts and socks will accompany the home outfit.

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Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, Hector Bellerin and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang all modeled the new kit, giving a hint that the quartet could be in Arsenal colors next season.

The uniform also uses Puma’s “seamless evoKNIT” technology, making it easier for players to play in while running across the pitch. The club has picked the marketing campaign “#WeAreTheArsenal” to drive sales.

Will the new kits bring Arsenal more success next season? Time will tell.

Short-handed Galaxy beat Impact after Ibrahimovic red card

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MONTREAL (AP) Playing a man down after Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic got a red card in the 42nd minute, the Los Angeles Galaxy got past the Montreal Impact 1-0 Monday on a goal by Ola Kamara.

The Galaxy (4-6-1) ended a four-game losing run. Montreal (3-9-0) has lost three in a row, all by shutout, with the last two coming at home.

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Ibrahimovic was sent off after slapping Michael Petrasso, who had stepped on Ibrahimovic’s foot while marking him well away from the ball. After consulting video, referee Ismail Elfath showed Ibrahimovic the red card and Petrasso the yellow.

Both went down after the slap, and Ibrahimovic was limping as a trainer helped him off the field.

With 10 men, the Galaxy stayed back in the second half, looking for counterattacks.

In the 75th minute, substitute Emmanuel Boateng headed a ball forward that Kamara took on the run. He beat Marco Donadel and Jukka Raitala with a cut into the middle and scored his team-leading fifth goal on a low shot from inside the penalty area.

Montreal had some chances, including back-to-back shots in the 55th minute by Alejandro Silva and Raheem Edwards that were blocked by goalkeeper David Bingham.

Reina faces hearing over links with trio connected to mafia

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ROME (AP) Outgoing Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina has been summoned to a hearing at the Italian football federation over his association with people with links to the mafia.

Reina, along with Paolo Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica, is to face the FIGC’s disciplinary committee after an investigation by Naples’ anti-mafia department.

It is reportedly one of the reasons why Napoli decided not to renew Reina’s contract, with the former Liverpool goalkeeper set to move to AC Milan on a free transfer.

The FIGC says Reina “has had and continues to have inopportune association and friendship with Gabriele Esposito, Francesco Esposito and Giuseppe Esposito.” It adds that that includes holidays and “an exchange of favors.”

Cannavaro, who had two spells with Napoli, retired at Sassuolo last year. Aronica also spent several years at the southern club before joining Palermo in 2013.