Which U.S. men can go from Gold Cup to World Cup?

4 Comments

In terms of a competition, this ongoing Gold Cup is like an NCIS or Law and Order rerun for a lot of U.S. supporters: It’s just something on TV, and they’ll watch because there’s nothing better on.

But that doesn’t mean that the tournament doesn’t have a place in the bigger picture, that it can’t supply some pieces to the big puzzle.

The clear, important subtext of Gold Cup play for the United States is what it could mean for World Cup roster spots that will be announced in about 10 months. (Spots that will announced in about 10 months … and how about that!)

Yes, we’re being presumptuous – the United States is going to Brazil. Get on board … it’s great in here!

Players have worked their way into World Cup spots through this competition previously, and they will again.

(MORE: Gold Cup preview of United States vs. Belize)

For purposes of this exercise, we are going to take Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan off the table. They are going to the World Cup next year unless they fall completely off the table performance-wise. (Or, obviously, if they get hurt.)

Here then are the four men who have the best opportunity to play their way into a World Cup spot over the coming three weeks.

Mix Diskerud: Remember, this young man is just 22, so his best years remain ahead. Diskerud – who has gone from two “Xs” lately to just one – could be passed over for Brazil 2014 and still conceivably play big roles in two World Cups.

That said, he’s got the opportunity dangling now. Diskerud (pictured above) already looks like a Michael Bradley starter kit, a technically adept two-way midfielder, not really a holding man and not really a playmaker, but able to perform either role adequately at present. That versatility becomes useful when managers fill out roster spots No. 18 through 23 at a World Cup.

It’s on Diskerud to show Jurgen Klinsmann he deserves one of those spots over the next three weeks.

Brek Shea: The Stoke City man has already accomplished something with his bright 30 minutes last week against Guatemala, getting Klinsmann to take notice. Shea earned a Gold Cup roster spot with those 30 minutes, plus whatever he demonstrated in a few days of training.

A few more evenings with that kind of attacking desire on display, parlayed with the former FC Dallas’ winger’s natural physical ability, and the manager will be hard pressed not to assign Shea a seat on the charter into Brazil next year.

Jose Torres: Klinsmann is an optimist by nature. So if Torres can finally put on the kind of display the manager keeps asking of him, Klinsmann will be inclined to believe the Texas native will deliver more of the same going forward. But it must happen now!

Torres absolutely, positively has to lean into this one, pressing the attack and finding more ways to impact the game. Leave the safe passes to Kyle Beckerman and the center backs, already! Take on defenders. Change the angles. Open up the defense with some vision. Vary the attack to keep the defense off balance. All in all … just do more to put all that technical craft to better use.

Jack McInerney: Klinsmann knows what Chris Wondolowski can do at striker. He knows, more or less, what Will Bruin can do. Not so with McInerney, now getting his first up-close look from the manager. He’s got the opportunity to knock one of those guys aside in the depth chart ordering.

There are 10-15 U.S. goals out there through three group games, a quarterfinal, a semifinal and final – assuming this thing doesn’t fall off the tracks en route to the July 28 final at Soldier Field. If McInerney can get into the act a couple of times, putting those scorers instincts and that finishing proficiency to use at international level, he’ll make Klinsmann think hard about a roster spot next year.

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

Getty Images
3 Comments

In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

Leave a comment

Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.