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.”

[ MORE: How will US line up vs. Belgium in Round of 16 clash? ]
[ MORE: Jozy Altidore hands US huge boost, fit to face Belgium ]
[ MORE : Three key battles that could decide US vs. Belgium showdown ]

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.

Bartomeu vows Messi will finish career at Barcelona

Messi staying with Barcelona
Photo by Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images
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Lionel Messi will finish his career at Barcelona, says embattled president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The exit clause in Messi’s latest Barcelona contract expired on June 1, putting a temporary end to worries that the world’s top player would leave a messy Barcelona season.

Messi, 33, is still near the top of his powers. He has 22 goals and 19 assists in 29 La Liga appearances this season, adding five goals and four assists in nine cup games.

[ MORE: Premier League standings ]

“(Messi) will end his working and footballing life at Barcelona”, said Bartomeu in a Monday radio interview. “We are negotiating with many players but Messi has explained to us he wants to stay. And so we’re going to enjoy him for much longer.”

Only four players in Europe’s top five leagues have scored more league goals than Messi and none of those players has more than eight assists. Messi’s 19 La Liga assists are two behind Thomas Muller in that same group.

It had been reported since November that Messi would not exercise his option to leave the club, but there were numerous reasons to think he might rethink things given problems at Barcelona.

There has been chaos in the board room and players including Messi were angry to be thrown under the proverbial bus when Ernesto Valverde was fired early this year.

Notably, he called Barcelona “home” but noted “weird things happening” at the Camp Nou. Fortunately, the club announced that an independent inspector cleared Barca’s hierarchy of wrongdoing after allegations that a third-party company contracted to the club tried to smear current and former club legends on social media.

Bartomeu needs Messi to stay as the club waits for Frenkie de Jong and Ansu Fati to come into the peaks of their powers. If the Argentine leaves Barca, who looks destined to finish second to Real Madrid despite leading the table for most of the year, the pressure on the president will reach an even higher level.

The president has overseen a mostly successful time at Barca during his tenure, winning four domestic titles and the 2014-15 Champions League.

FC Dallas withdrawn from MLS is Back tourney; Vela to sit out

FC Dallas withdraws from MLS is Back
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Carlos Vela’s decision to sit out the MLS is Back tournament has been one-upped by reports that MLS has pulled an entire team out of the fray in Florida.

Vela, considered by many to be the league’s top player, is opting out of representing LAFC and choosing to spend time with his pregnant wife and children.

The Mexican star, 31, said he would love to play but the coronavirus pandemic means missing out is in “the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy.”

[ MORE: Mourinho, Lloris react to Son spat ]

LAFC released a statement supporting Vela’s “difficult decision,” which will not help the West’s top side in its bid to outlast the Galaxy, Houston, and Portland in Group F, should the tournament go forward as planned.

Meanwhile, FC Dallas’ bad month has gotten much worse. Six players reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 last week and reports grew to include 10 players and one coach.

The side’s opening match against Vancouver was postponed on Saturday. Now FC Dallas says it is supporting an MLS decision to take the team out of the tournament. FC Dallas says it will take every precaution to make sure its return to Texas “minimizes risk of exposure to all parties involved.”

Dallas was drawn into Group B with Seattle, Vancouver, and San Jose. Two of the teams were set to advance to the knockout rounds.

Here is MLS’ statement on FC Dallas’ withdrawal:

“Major League Soccer announced today that FC Dallas have been withdrawn from the MLS is Back Tournament due to 10 players and one member of the technical staff confirmed positive for COVID-19. Each of these positive tests either occurred upon the club’s arrival or within a few days of arrival. The decision was made in the best interest of the health of all players and staff participating in the tournament, and in line with protocols created in conjunction with local and national health authorities and infectious disease experts.
“’Given the impact of the number of positive tests on the club’s ability to train and play competitive matches, we have made the decision to withdraw FC Dallas from the MLS is Back Tournament,’ said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. ‘The health of everyone involved in our return to play has always been our top priority, and we will continue to make decisions consistent with that priority.’
Of the 557 players currently in Orlando, Fla. 13 total players have been confirmed positive for COVID-19, 10 of those being FC Dallas players and the remaining three from two other clubs.”

Mourinho: ‘Nice boys only win the fair play cup’

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The reaction to two Tottenham players having a scrap was very on brand for Jose Mourinho.

[ MORE: Premier League standings ]

Mourinho called a half time coming-together between captain Hugo Lloris and star forward Heung-min Son ‘beautiful’ and praised the fighting spirit of his players as they beat Everton 1-0.

Speaking to reporters via Zoom after the win, Mourinho made a point that he wants his Tottenham side to be nastier as he was asked about saying they needed to grow up.

“A team of good boys, nice boys, the only thing that they win at the end of the season is the fair play cup. Which is something I’ve never won and I’m not interested in winning that,” Mourinho said. “You need to have a certain character. You need to grow up in terms of your mentality, in your responsibility because it is very, very important to be consistent. To have a good game, win a match, then lose the other one, then win another one, then draw another one. That is the kind of mentality that doesn’t take you further in your ambitions. It is not a specific concept but it is a concept that covers many, many areas. I think it is very, very important. I don’t like a team without communication, without demanding from each other. I don’t like a team without a critical sense. Probably what happened today at half time shouldn’t happen there, should happen just inside the dressing room, but I can promise you my teams, my winning teams, we had big fights in the team.”

That Jose Mourinho reaction said it all as to what he expects from Tottenham. He certainly knows all about winning and that is why Tottenham hired him.

A narrow win to beat Everton at home to move in to eighth place, nine points off the top four, probably isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but Mourinho loved what he saw.

“I think they are the same thing, the same spirit,” Mourinho said when ProSoccerTalk asked him about the fight of his players on and off the pitch. “We spoke a lot after the game at Sheffield United and one of the things we spoke about was to have a critical sense, to be open with each other and be demanding with each other. Don’t accept the attitude. Don’t be passive in relation to the others. I think that was a consequence of that. The performance was very solid. My feeling was that the game was under control and I never felt the game wasn’t under control.

“Could we play better? Could we score more? Yes, of course. I always fear matches after bad defeats because sometimes you stay in the bad defeats. Sometimes you carry to the match the weight of the bad performances, the weight of the critics and the boys were great in their attitude. They really fought hard for the three points and in this moment of the season the most important thing is the points, to try to finish in the best possible position.”

Tottenham are becoming a Mourinho team and that means the play on the pitch won’t be as good to watch as it could be, but he will grind out results like this.

Mourinho was asked about becoming just the fifth manager in Premier League history to win 200 games, with only Sir Alex Ferguson reaching that milestone in fewer matches than him, and this was his response.

“Of course, as you know, I am not a very humble guy, but when you coach three of the best clubs in England you have more chances to get to that,” Mourinho smiled. “Sir Alex did it because all of his career in England was at Manchester United. I did it because I was with Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham. I think nobody asks the coaches without titles that their teams put in 200 amazing performances. You are telling me your teams won 200 Premier League matches. You don’t tell anyone who won nothing, ‘your team had 100 or 200 amazing performances.’ But I want to admit that today I would be even more happy if it was not just a victory, but it was a beautiful victory, I would be more happy and I want my team to do that.”

Mourinho will be playing ‘all I do is win, win, win’ over the radio on his car ride home on Monday. Then he will probably officiate a punch up between Harry Kane and Eric Dier just because.

Lloris explains Son scuffle, which Mourinho deems “beautiful”

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Tottenham Hotspur captain Hugo Lloris explained his halftime dust-up with teammate Heung-min Son, with all in better spirits after a 1-0 home win over Everton on Monday.

Lloris needed to be separated from Son as the two walked off the pitch, though cameras caught them making up at halftime and hugging after the final whistle.

Lilywhite reconciliation.

TOTTENHAM – EVERTON FULL MATCH REPLAY

As our broadcast crew surmised, Lloris was unhappy that Son quit on his press after a giveaway. That led to a Richarlison scoring chance before halftime.

Lloris faced the cameras after completing the clean sheet in North London.

“What happened between me and Sonny is something that’s part of football some times but there’s no problem at all,” Lloris said. “You can see after the game that we are more than happy to be part of the team. … To concede a chance a few seconds before halftime because we don’t have the proper press is annoying but that’s football.”

Spurs manager Jose Mourinho loved it.

“It’s beautiful,” Mourinho said to Sky Sports after the game. “Probably it’s consequence of our meetings. If you want to blame somebody for that, it’s me because I was critical of my boys because they are not critical themselves of each other. I asked them to be more demanding, to put their colleagues under that pressure, that team spirit where you have to do everything for everything.

“An amazing kid that everybody loves like Son, a team boy, but in that situation the captain said you have to do more and give more to the team. A couple of bad words, I don’t know if there was a push, but that’s important for a team to grow up. I was really pleased. At halftime I told them, when you have those reactions I have no doubt you will stick together til the end.”

Mourinho went on, calling back to Spurs’ Thursday loss at Sheffield United which featured a bizarre and controversial decision from VAR chief Michael Oliver to take a goal off the board after a fouled, falling, and looking the other way Lucas Moura had the ball hit his arm prior to a Harry Kane goal.

“It tells me that they care. They were upset, frustrated and probably blaming each other for the last result. I could be very protective of my team and my players and put all the blame on Michael Oliver. A lot of people did it and rightly so but inside I was in the direction of forget Michael Oliver and focus on our performance so today we knew, right?”

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The North Londoners are one point behind local rivals Arsenal ahead of this weekend’s big derby (though there’s still a Thursday visit to Bournemouth for Spurs).

“We are in a situation we need to fight against,” Lloris said. “We are not happy to be in that position but what’s important today is to say focused on the team and do everything to finish as high as we can. When you play a system like this one, it’s very easy to fall apart as a team. To think about the interest. But today we showed we are ready to fight until the end.”

Spurs will like their chances to win at desperate Bournemouth if they can stay focused on the task at hand and not focus on the North London Derby.