Right back: a cursed U.S. national team position?

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Once upon a time, not too long ago, left back was the problem child position around the U.S. national team. It was the position with issues, the personnel riddle that refused to be solved despite varied and valiant attempts.

It was like that for more than a decade, going back to a time so troubled that ol’ David Regis seemed like the answer.

David Regis was not the answer.

We’ve officially witnessed a changing of the guard, so to speak, during the current World Cup cycle. The position most likely to keep U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann up at night these days: U.S. right back.

(MORE: Chandler injured in Nuremberg match)

Timothy Chandler’s injury today is the latest reminder that every option at this position come with its own set of issues.  Let’s take a quick, fresh look at the candidates to play right back this summer in Brazil. (Or, in a couple of cases, guys who came close to candidacy over the last couple of years.)

  • Brad Evans: He’s the top choice at the moment, even though it’s not his spot for the Seattle Sounders. Playing one position for club and something different for country isn’t exactly unique. Then again, it’s not exactly ideal, either, now is it?
  • Geoff Cameron: The guess here is that Cameron, still doing well at the right back spot for Stoke, will be the starting right back when Klinsmann lines ‘em up against Ghana on June 16 at Estadio das Dunas in Natal. But for whatever reason (as we talked about earlier this week), Klinsmann has been reluctant to embrace the long-legged righty as a fullback, preferring that the player fight his way into central defensive candidacy for Stoke City. Again, it might be changing. Either way, this one may be the oddest duck in a lineup of odd duck personnel conundrums at the U.S. right back spot.
  • Steve Cherundolo: The longtime U.S. incumbent at right back slips further and further from World Cup candidacy with each inactive week that passes. He just can’t get past the injury issues that have taken him out of the Hannover lineup all year.
  • DeAndre Yedlin: Word is that Klinsmann really liked what he saw out of the young Sounders outside back during an eventful January camp. But it’s just too early for him. Might we see a big run from the guy during World Cups in 2018 and 2022? Could be! But for 2014? The guy remains pretty raw.
  • Tony Beltran: Just over one year ago he was among the guys performing pretty well in camp. Then came a rough night as a starter against Canada, and Beltran just hasn’t made up the lost ground since.
  • Fabian Johnson: A natural lefty, Johnson (pictured above) has started here and there out of necessity at right back for the United States. And could certainly do so again; he always looked OK as a right back. But when you use a guy who is “solid” or just “OK” on the right, but who could be potentially dynamic and even game-breaking on the other side of the field, you’ve left something pretty valuable on the table, haven’t you?
  • Michael Parkhurst: Steady performances (nothing sizzling, but a dependable defensive presence) on the right and on the left have put the Columbus Crew man in position for heavy roster consideration. When it comes to those 21st, 22nd and 23rd spots, versatility is pretty clutch. Of course, he’ll be playing center back for Gregg Berhalter at Crew Stadium, so that mucks things up a bit.
  • Timothy Chandler: If your poured the truth syrup over Klinsmann’s morning pancakes, he’d probably confess that the flakey young FC Nuremberg man is alive in this conversation today only because of the positional instability. Otherwise, he’d be dead as a box of hammers to Klinsmann and the U.S. staff. This latest news (today’s injury) adds yet another moving part to it all, at very best. At worst (well, depending on your definition of “worst,” which probably swings in this case on your feelings about Chandler), this more or less eliminates the guy for roster consideration.

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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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

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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’

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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

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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.