Anxiety factor low, but opportunities still exist as U.S. readies to meet Jamaica in World Cup qualifying

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KANSAS CITY – What a stinging irony, wonderful and just a little bit damaging all at once. By achieving something with flying colors, the United States has removed a little bit of valuable opportunity factor.

Here’s the deal:

The United States has qualified for the World Cup with two full games to spare. So that rings the bell of accomplishment, and pretty loudly. (Don’t think so? Look at Mexico, still fighting Friday for its World Cup life!)

On the other hand, qualifying for a World Cup was never the main mission for Jurgen Klinsmann and his team; it was always more of a weigh station along the road to Brazil, if we’re being honest. Getting to a World Cup was mostly a starting point for this group.

So any chance to improve as a group is a grand opportunity, right? Of course, but by qualifying 8 games into the 10-game final round, the United States has significantly diminished one of the few opportunities between now and next summer to assemble and test itself under pressure.

Ironic, eh?

But as Klinsmann likes to say, “It is what it is.” So the United States faces Jamaica at Sporting Park on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and on Spanish language UniMas), there’s virtually nothing on the line. Yes, the United States might possibly improve its chances of getting a more favorable draw in December when 32 qualifiers are placed into groups. But it’s a big “might,” and no one around the team seems to be talking or thinking about FIFA and its unpredictable, idiosyncratic seeding methodologies.

From the moment the United States clinched qualification – into a seventh consecutive World Cup – Klinsmann has been adamant that opportunities to fine tune would not be wasted, that his best players would be summoned.

There certainly are some opportunities here; 15-16 players probably have locks on roster spots for next summer in Brazil, which means seven or eight spots may still be there for the taking, with perhaps 14-15 players eyeballing those spots.

Friday represents one of five official FIFA dates between now at the opening of training camp for World Cup 2014, so if a Sacha Kljestan or a Brad Davis or an Aron Johannsson (just to name a few) wants to be noticed, he has to “say something” to the coaches on Friday against the Jamaicans, and he had better says it loud and say it strong.

Still, the mood at training on a brilliant fall Thursday afternoon at Sporting Kansas City’s Swope Park seemed jovial and quite loose. Again, that’s about a match that doesn’t mean anything. (By the way, there isn’t much on the line for the Jamaicans, either. The Raggae Bozy are in last place and have virtually no chance of getting that fourth-place playoff spot.) Is there a different feel to this U.S. camp compared to others?

“There’s not as much anxiety coming up the game,” American midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “If we were in a different situation, like Mexico or Panama, you could feel the pressure mounting. Here it’s all about just putting in the work, becoming a better team and getting ready for Brazil.”

Beckerman did mention those opportunities. There are more of them due to injuries or other concerns for front line men like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Omar Gonzalez. They are all in good shape in terms of getting to Brazil, but they aren’t in Kansas City today.

There is even some opportunity factor, although a different kind, for guys already in good shape to make the roster. (Yes, so much of the talk for the next six months is going be “roster chatter,” so we’ll go back to this topic again and again.)

For instance, the injury to Gonzalez means Matt Besler will require a central partner. Klinsmann said on Thursday that Geoff Cameron’s best spot is at center back, even if he plays right back for Stoke City and proved he could hold his own this summer as a holding midfielder. That versatility will help get former Houston Dynamo man to Brazil, but if he gets a shot at center back Friday alongside Besler, Cameron could possibly improve his positioning in the depth chart at that position.

It’s another chance for DaMarcus Beasley to show that he can hold down the left back spot, that he’s more than just a stop-gap there. (Remember, Beasley was an emergency option just a few months ago at left back.)

source:  Brad Evans may find himself at right back Friday, but veteran Steve Cherundolo remains in the conversation. So any chance for Evans to demonstrate his abilities cannot be wasted.

Between Sacha Kljestan (pictured left) and Mix Diskerud, there’s probably only room for one versatile, hybrid midfielder. Diskerud seems to have pulled ahead, so Kljestan may need to think more along the lines of “making up ground” on Friday.

“For all of us, it’s another audition,” said Landon Donovan, who is probably a little past the “audition stage” of his career, even if he is taking nothing for granted. “So at this point of the game, you really cannot take a step backward if you want to be on the World Cup roster. I think we all see it that way.”

Following Friday’s match at Sporting Park, the United States will close out final round qualifying four days later at Panama, inside Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

Champions League preview: Spurs host Leipzig, Valencia visits Atalanta

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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties kickoff Wednesday, including one being labeled as the biggest in a club’s existence.

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That would be Serie A side Atalanta, which hosts Valencia at 3 p.m. at Gewiss Stadium.

Atalanta had played in two consecutive Europa Leagues, but this is their first move into the Champions League. To make the knockout rounds is exceptional, and club president Antonio Percassi is fired up.

“We must be honest, this is the most important game in the history of this club,” Percassi told Sky Sport Italia. “It doesn’t seem real. It’s exciting just thinking that tomorrow we’ll be in a Champions League Round of 16. It’s wonderful for our fans too. … This is going to be a unique experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

Atalanta finished second in its group to Manchester City, and is fourth in Serie A. Valencia won its group.

There’s a Premier League side in action on Wednesday, too, as Spurs begin life without Heung-Min Son.

Jose Mourinho spun a tale about how badly Tottenham will need its fans against RB Leipzig, comparing the home-field advantage to an emergency rescue crew of sorts.

Leipzig is led by Julian Nagelsmann, who was once referred to as “Baby Mourinho” by his players.

The 32-year-old was quick to distance himself from the story.

“Tomorrow it is Leipzig against Tottenham, not Mourinho v. Baby Mourinho,” he said. “I have great respect for Mourinho. He has won lots of titles with big clubs, the Champions League twice. He has made his mark on European football at some big European clubs. I think it his 59th knockout game in the CL and it is my first so there is obviously respect there.”

Liverpool’s Robertson not a fan of Atletico Madrid theatrics

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Liverpool fullback Andy Robertson was not impressed with Atletico Madrid’s display as his side fell 1-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Reds fell behind on a fourth-minute Saul Niguez goal and couldn’t get a shot on target despite 73 percent possession in Spain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Atleti executed its plan to near-perfection, slowing restarts and taking advantage of counterattacking opportunities to assuage the constant pressure of Liverpool.

At times it was reminiscent of early-century Italian national team play, and both neutrals and Liverpool knew what they were in for once Atleti took the lead.

“We gave them the best possible start to get the fans behind them and then they can start falling over and things like that, trying to get under our skin a bit which I think we handled quite well to be honest,” Robertson told BT Sport. “We know we are better than (how they played). We put in a decent performance and we can be better than that. Luckily we have got a second leg to put it right.”

Given the performance and the reputation, you’d still fancy the Reds to “put it right” at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp thinks Atleti will feel plenty of pressure at Anfield, and he will certainly feel the officiating will be more to his liking.

Liverpool’s Klopp: ‘Our people will be ready’ for second leg at Anfield

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Jurgen Klopp didn’t have any issue with Diego Simeone’s defense-first Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Spanish side flummoxed Liverpool’s attack and the Reds didn’t manage a shot on target despite eight attempts and 73 percent possession at the Wanda Metropolitano.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

What Klopp didn’t appreciate was the referee’s work, though, implying that Polish official Szymon Marciniak was overwhelmed by the occasion. Marciniak has worked UCL matches for six seasons, twice overseeing quarterfinal ties.

Klopp was shown a yellow card in the second half, and the Liverpool boss felt Sadio Mane was harassed by Atleti. Klopp removed yellow-carrying Mane at halftime.

“He was targeted obviously,” Klopp said after the game. “The only thing they wanted was to make sure he got a yellow card. The score is 1-0, that’s all but you need to be really strong as a ref in this atmosphere. So many things happened, after 30 minutes already three players were on the ground. The first yellow card was a striker from us. I’m not sure they even got a yellow card, which is funny.”

Atleti’s Angel Correa was shown a yellow, while Klopp, Mane, and Joe Gomez were cautioned for Liverpool.

The Liverpool boss found himself laughing a few times, especially when he was asked about Simeone’s touchline personality.

Klopp said before the game that if the German was a four in intensity, then Simeone was a 12. Simeone followed suit by constantly urging the crowd to get behind the home side on Tuesday.

That didn’t bother Klopp, but he issued a public relations officer’s dream in reacting to it.

“Wow, wow,” he laughed. “That’s energy. I don’t think I have to do it that much (at Anfield). Our people will be ready. Welcome to Anfield. It’s not over yet.”

Klopp finished his remarks by saying of Jordan Henderson‘s removal from the game with a hamstring injury, “I hope it was a precaution, but I’m not 100 percent sure”

Haaland wins first leg after Borussia Dortmund-PSG comes to life late

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Erling Haaland scored twice in a mid-second half flurry as Borussia Dortmund beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The hosts also got an assist from teenager Giovanni Reyna, who became the youngest American to appear in a Champions League match.

Haaland now has 39 goals in 29 appearances between Red Bull Salzburg and BVB, 11 of those for his new German employer.

Neymar scored off a Kylian Mbappe goal for PSG, who brings an away goal back to the Parc des Princes for a March 11 second leg.

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Neymar had an early free kick, missing just wide of the far post.

Jadon Sancho troubled the keeper twice in the first half hour, first with a cross that Mats Hummels headed over goal. Then, Keylor Navas picked another Sancho offering out of the air.

Sancho kept serving, and Erling Haaland couldn’t turn a promising cross on target.

Dortmund walked into halftime with a scoreless match but a 7-2 edge in shot attempts. Neither of PSG’s shots were on target.

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Borussia Dortmund boss Lucien Favre put in American teen Giovani Reyna in the 67th minute.

Two minutes later, it was 1-0 to the hosts through Haaland’s close-range goal.

Neymar replied from close range himself after a powerful, clever dribble from Kylian Mbappe led to a pass through the box.

But Haaland got his second in the 77th minute with a scorching shot that serves as the first senior assist of Reyna’s senior career with Dortmund (Watch it here).