Preview: Despite Belgium’s talent, U.S. has reason to believe

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The United States has a semifinal appearance on its World Cup résumé, but there’s a reason why that doesn’t come up very often. That result came all the way back in 1930, when the shallow nature of the inaugural tournament meant winning your group earned a place in the semifinals. Having beaten Belgium and Paraguay in group play, the U.S. lost to Argentina in the semifinals, 6-1, bowing out in front of over 72,000 at the legendary Centenario in Montevideo.

The true gold standard of U.S. World Cup performance remains2002 – the year the team claimed its only knockout round victory. Having tarnished Portugal’s Golden Generation in the group stage, Bruce Arena’s team got goals from the best number nine in team history (Brian McBride) and a 20-year-old Landon Donovan to cruise past rival Mexico and into the quarterfinals. A controversial loss to Germany later (thanks, Torsten Frings), and the squad that went to Japan-South Korea had both legacy and martyrdom.

Twelve years later, that win in Jeonju, South Korea, remains the only bright light in the U.S.’s knockout round history. Be it 1994, when a tournament on home soil saw the team bow out 1-0 to a 10-man Brazil, or 2010, when a second straight do-or-die loss to the Black Stars handed the team a new nemesis, close calls in must-win matches only affirmed the legend of 2002.

They’re the types of loses that fuel fan nightmares. Though the team was second-best each time, each game was close enough for one break to matter. What if Frings’ hand ball gets called in `02? Or Claudio Reyna doesn’t lock knees with __ against Ghana in `06? What if Rico Clark doesn’t gift Kevin-Prince Boateng the opener in 2010, or … what if Leonardo doesn’t break Tab Ramos’s skull in `94? Even that year, the U.S. only lost by one goal.

Each result allows fans to dream, to think “We’re so close. If we’re better four years from now, we can get over the hump.”

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Tuesday may as well be four years from now. After seeing the U.S. advance out of one of the most difficult groups its ever been given, fans have every reason to believe Jurgen Klinsmann’s team is better than the team that went to South Africa. The win over Ghana and the team’s performance against Portugal proved as much. Having made strides since 2010, this year’s team may be the U.S.’s best since the standard-setter that sent El Tri home from Jeonju.

Unfortunately for the U.S., the competition is tougher this year, too. Whereas the Americans won a weak group in 2010 and played Ghana in the second round, this year’s second place finish means they’re slotted against one of the most talented teams in the tournament – a team whose talent could, in time, be seen to rival those Brazil and Germany teams that sentthe U.S. out of previous World Cups.

source: AP
Belgium’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, center, helped lead Atlético Madrid to this springs UEFA Champions League final. Eden Hazard, left, was among the best attackers in the Barclays Premier League. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Belgium, the seeded team in Group H, is one of four teams to reach the knockout round with a 3-0-0 record. They have one of the best goalkeepers in the world (Thibaut Courtois), one of the game’s elite central defenders (Vincent Kompany, if healthy), and a 22-year-old attacking midfielder that helped lead his clubteam to Europe’s Champions League semifinals (Eden Hazard). Though they haven’t been to a major tournament in 12 years, Belgium has the talent to compete with any team still alive in this tournament.

Their entire starting XI will be made up of talents playing at major clubs in Europe’s biggest leagues. Over half of their team will see time in next season’s Champions League, and aside from central defender Daniel Van Buyten, none of the Red Devils’ major contributors are over 28 years old. As much people expect the Belgians to make an impact now, Brazil 2014 will be the first salvo from a Golden Generation that could redefine their country’s soccer. Belgium has only made it past the second round at one World Cup.

[ MORE: Chasing the narrative: What the numbers tell us (if anything) about Michael Bradley’s World Cup ]
[ MORE: The case for Geoff Cameron: should US defender start vs. Belgium? ]
[ MORE: So, how much of an upset would it be if the USMNT beat Belgium? ]

That, remarkably, may be where the U.S. has an edge. We don’t think of the Americans as an experienced group, but unlike the Belgians, many of them have been here before. The leadership of this U.S. team — the Clint Dempseys, DaMarcus Beasleys, Michael Bradleys, and Tim Howards of this squad — know what this pressure is like. They’ve not only played in a knockout round, but they know what it’s like to expected victory and come up short. Add in Jurgen Klinsmann, a coach that’s taken a team to the World Cup semifinals (as well as won a world title as a coach), and the U.S. may have enough “know-how” to defy expectations.

Those expectations say talent will win out on Tuesday in Salvador; that the U.S. will meet their Germany (2002) or Brazil (1994). But those expectations overlook Belgium, for all their talent, aren’t Germany or Brazil, yet. The Red Devils’ three, one-goal wins in a weak group hints they may be a tournament away from greatness. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s adaptability in the face of one of the competition’s toughest draws hints at a ability to transcend its talent.

Against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany, the U.S. showed it can play at a knockout round level. Against Algeria, Russia, and South Korea, Belgium never had to reach those heights to get out of their group.

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann questions choice of Algerian referee for match against Belgium ]
[ MORE: Belgium injury update: Thomas Vermaelen out; Vincent Kompany still doubtful ]
[ MORE: You can probably stop referencing Belgium’s win vs US last year, okay? ]
[ MORE: Belgium reveal respect for US ‘keeper Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey ]

That doesn’t make the U.S. favorites. The world’s right to see the Americans as underdogs, though the quarterfinals are within reach. If the U.S. wins on Tuesday, the world won’t be shocked, nor will they need a series of breaks to pull it off. The result wouldn’t even be the biggest surprise of this competition. If Klinsmann’s team plays to its potential — like it already has in stretches during this tournament — it can beat Belgium.

With one minor upset, this U.S. team can create a legacy of its own. If they can show the Belgians are still one tournament away, the United States will return to the quarterfinals.

Brighton’s Potter joins Howe in taking voluntary pay cut

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Brighton and Hove Albion boss Graham Potter has joined club chief executive Paul Barber and technical director Dan Ashworth in taking a voluntary pay cut for the next three months.

The trio said the decision was made to support chairman Tony Bloom’s “significant efforts to protect all jobs at our club and charity.”

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Clubs all over the world have been furloughing workers if not laying them off altogether as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on club finances.

On Thursday, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe became the first Premier League manager to take a voluntary pay cut. The clubs were also together in a prior initiative to reward medical workers.

Here’s Potter, via  BrightonandHoveAlbion.com:

“I spoke with Tony Bloom a couple of weeks ago, and I just felt like a normal thing to offer him because he has been good to me. I know the pressure he is under as a chairman and the challenges he faces. It is a small thing we can do but I think it was an important offer.

“Tony being Tony said, ‘Thank you very much but, at the moment we are working through things.’ As things have moved forward, I think we have come to the right decision to do what we have done.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola donated $1 million to fight coronavirus in Catalonia. Whether donations or pay cuts, surely more will come.

Brazil, Argentina league soccer players seek full pay amid coronavirus

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SAO PAULO (AP) As soccer players around Europe accept pay cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic, some of their less-well-compensated South American counterparts are fighting for every penny.

In Brazil and Argentina, players aren’t budging during the league shutdown despite forced cuts to staffing and wages in other leagues around the continent.

Negotiations in Brazil between an association of clubs and the players’ union have failed to reach a deal on pay and early vacations. Team captains and executives are now trying to reach individual decisions, but those could end up in court.

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Brazil’s top clubs, fearing a loss of sponsors and rising debts, wanted to cut player salaries by 25% until the pandemic ends. But some players – including those who have been paid late in the past – have asked for the Brazilian soccer confederation to step in. So far it hasn’t, but the union did give some ground on the issue of vacations.

Former players, executives and coaches said they were inspired by the example set by Lionel Messi, who took a 70% cut in pay to help Barcelona keep its staffers during the pandemic. But the voices in Brazil sound more like that of Atlético Mineiro defender Guilherme Arana.

“I don’t think there is a reason (to cut). We are stopping because we need to,” the 22-year-old Arana told Fox Sports. “It is the world that is stopping.”

Atlético, however, said Sunday it will cut salaries by 25%, except for staff members on lower wages.

In Argentina, which has about 4,000 male and female professional soccer players, clubs have not cut salaries and the country’s national federation has not made any recommendations on the issue.

Players’ union leader Sérgio Marchi was, unsurprisingly, against any cuts. He insisted in a radio interview that “it is fundamental” to respect the salaries of soccer players because it would allow the league to resume “without any sort of conflict after this contingency is over.”

“Some (officials) are seeking excuses or mitigating factors for their bad management or to their flawed behavior at the time they are setting up a budget,” he said.

[ MORE: Serie A could return in late May ]

Players in Colombia asked for full pay, but clubs acted swiftly to start saving money.

Jaguares suspended the contracts of 13 members of its squad, Millionarios reduced wages without much debate and Santa Fé pitched fans against players on Twitter by asking them if salaries should be cut. The query ended with 62% of fans voting yes.

Colombian league organizers are also asking the government to broaden some economic policies to help clubs, including those that have suspended players’ contracts so they wouldn’t go bankrupt.

“We don’t want taxpayer money to deal with the financial difficulties during this mandatory stop,” Jorge Enrique Vélez, the head of the league, said in an interview with Radio Caracol. “We are asking for policies that the government has already set for tourism and aviation industries. We also had to stop 100%, and we have no revenues during this time.”

In Uruguay, some players are now claiming unemployment benefits after several clubs, including Montevideo powerhouse Peñarol, suspended their contracts. The country’s soccer association has also cut pay for staff, including 73-year-old national team coach Oscar Tabárez.

The biggest exception is in Peru, where Alianza Lima players openly suggested they should be paid less so the club can afford to keep all its workers. Goalkeeper Leao Butrón said the decision was “easy to make.”

“Yes, the offer actually came from us. We wanted to give the club a break,” Butrón said in a radio interview. “They told us that it is not necessary for now. But we don’t know when this will end. We are still willing. Beyond being an economic problem, it is a liquidity issue. A financial issue. We can give a hand if extreme measures are needed.”

Associated Press writers Debora Rey in Buenos Aires and Eric Nuñez in New York contributed to this report.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Report: Serie A could resume training May 2, games late in month

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Blanket testing for players and a 14-day quarantine for foreign players are on the menu as Serie A reportedly looks to resume in May.

Football Italia cites a report from Italian news outlet Adnkronos that discusses a May 2 return to training with matches resuming late in the month.

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Vincenzo Spadafora is Italy’s minister for sport, and is hopeful that the worst of the coronavirus is behind the country.

According to the report, any player returning to Italy from abroad would be quarantined for two weeks before returning to training.

After an initial round of testing for all players, more would follow:

More tests would be made weekly to maintain that level of certainty all the way to the end of the season. Clubs are believed to be stocking up on COVID-19 tests, in accordance with medical structures in their cities, ensuring everyone has enough to go around.

The plan may be met with resistance, as combustible Brescia owner Massimo Cellino says his club will not play and has accepted that it earned relegation.

European bodies implore member associations to wait to abandon seasons

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UEFA is speaking up regarding its hope to finish club seasons once the environment is safer.

Sky Sports reports that UEFA has sent a letter to its 55 members associations imploring them not to cancel their competitions early and that they exhaust all options “until the last possibility exists.”

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The letter is signed by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, European Club Association chairman Andrea Agnelli and European Leagues president Lars-Christer Olsson.

The report comes as the Belgian Super League reportedly prepares to award its league title to Club Brugge on April 15. The league would be the first to see its season abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic.

From Sky Sports:

“We are confident that football can restart in the months to come – with conditions that will be dictated by public authorities – and believe that any decision of abandoning domestic competitions is, at this stage, premature and not justified.”

Many leagues, such as the Premier League, continue to suspend their seasons indefinitely as they wait for improvements with the coronavirus pandemic.

Although UEFA have relaxed their previous stance that domestic seasons should be finished by June 30, it is looking more likely that the 2019-20 season would need until August or September.