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Why Johan Cruyff was the most influential man in soccer history

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Johan Cruyff is without doubt one of the greatest individuals the beautiful game has ever seen.

[ VIDEO: Highlights from Cruyff’s career ]

On Thursday it was with great sadness that the news arrived that Cruyff had lost his battle with cancer and had died in Barcelona at the age of 68.

The soccer world mourned as one. Cruyff was a legend of the sport and his overwhelming influence in shaping the modern game can never be measured.

[ MORE: Players, clubs react to Cruyff’s death

He is always mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Diego Maradona and Eusebio as the greatest to ever play the game, but Cruyff continued to give so much more soccer when his playing days were over.

He worked tirelessly to replicate the exciting and entertaining philosophy he thrived in with Ajax, Holland and Barcelona as a player and bring that to the modern era.

The Dutch legend succeeded.

[ MORE: Cruyff dies, aged 68 ]

In his playing days he dazzled. Cruyff’s now famous turn which occurred at the 1974 World Cup is still practiced and taught to youth players today, and he also succeeded in taking a penalty kick between two players. He was a deep thinker who seemed to glide across the surface and made an impact from his debut as a 17-year-old and never looked back. Despite only being a slight figure, he always seemed to be one step ahead of his opponents. He was a genius as a player, winning three-straight European Cups with his hometown club Ajax, then translating that success to Barcelona and Holland.

Johan Cruyff of Holland

He won the Ballon d’Or three times and was a majestic playmaker who was at the heart of Rinus Michels’ “Total Football” philosophy which revolutionized the game.

It allowed a fluid style of play and threw away the rigid defensive systems and allowed any player on the pitch to attack, then another would slot in for them. It was all about spacing and timing and Cruyff’s grasp of that notion was key to it working.

Cruyff took Michels’ ideology into his own coaching career with Ajax, and it continued to shape the Dutch national team, but more famously his ideas and innovation prospered at Barcelona, and still are to this day, as the Spanish powerhouse has so much to thank Cruyff for.

“Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don’t run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late,” Cruyff once said.

He took the ideology he was brought up on at Ajax to Barcelona and wanted to create a team people would enjoy watching. He achieved that and “El Dream Team” was born at Barca. They won four-straight La Liga titles from 1990-94 under Cruyff and he delivered their first-ever UEFA Champions League title in 1992, winning 11 trophies overall.

FC Barcelona v SD Eibar - La Liga

“It was a club which for 100 years had never won it [the European Cup] and now you didn’t only win it but the way you won it,” Cruyff said. “Don’t talk about you won the game. No, no. You enjoyed watching and enjoying the games of Barcelona was much more important than only winning.”

Cruyff did not only excel as Barca’s manager but he created a system which has developed some of the greatest players the world has ever seen. Barca’s famed La Masia academy was Cruyff’s brainchild as he wanted the ideals he learned at Ajax to become commonplace in Catalan’s capital city.

Joan Laporta, former president of Barcelona, summed up Cruyff’s influence on the club and the people of Barcelona, his second-home, plus the Spanish national team who won the World Cup in 2010 for the first-time and the European Championships in 2008 and 2012 with many of the players Cruyff helped to cultivate.

“Johan revolutionized the city and the country,” Laporta said. “He transformed Barcelona and Catalonia because during his time here he turned football into an art form. He was innovative and a breath of fresh air. It was an extraordinary feeling and he touched a lot of people.”

The likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi would not have become legendary figures if it wasn’t for Cruyff and his ideology. The ideas he passed on to Barcelona has helped them become one of the greatest clubs the world has ever seen. It wasn’t always easy for Barca to stick by the philosophy Cruyff had brought, with Jose Mourinho’s defensive approach bearing fruit and other teams becoming more physical, but they stuck to the principles of “Total Football” and developed “Tiki-taka” which has been revered the world over.

He was an inspiration not only to those players but countless managers who are dominating the game today. Pep Guardiola — the man who overtook Cruyff’s record as the most successful Barcelona coach by winning 15 trophies — is perhaps the biggest and best example of someone who idolized Cruyff and as his pupil tried to replicate his ideas on a daily basis both at Barcelona and again at Bayern Munich.

It’s not just Guardiola, though. There is Ronaldo de Boer, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Arsene Wenger and countless others who took Cruyff’s ideas and have had success with them from a managerial standpoint. His philosophy will always be admired and Cruyff’s legacy will live on for many more generations. As a person he was outspoken when he needed to be but highly regarded as a good, kind man who was always wiling to discuss his ideas and constantly came up with new ways of playing and implementing his philosophy.

Some of the most famous quotes attributed to Cruyff sum up his sharp wit and high soccer intellect.

“If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better,” Cruyff said.

“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is,” Cruyff said.

“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring,” Cruyff said.

“It’s better to go down with your own vision than someone else’s,” Cruyff said.

Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich

In recent months, as stories of his battle against cancer became more widespread, current Barca stars Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez concocted a plan to honor Cruyff and show him they were thinking about him. During a game the star trio recreated his famous penalty routine and Cruyff was said to be “excited” by their gesture and his presence is still felt heavily in the modern game.

He was a remarkable individual who made the game what it is today.

Rijkaard, a Dutch national team legend himself, went on to manage Barcelona after playing under Cruyff at Ajax.

“He is like the Godfather of Dutch football,” Rijkard explained. “When I was 10 years old playing in the streets, watching television I saw Cruyff and all of those other great players. For me, that’s the great Dutch generation.”

Marco van Basten, who is often mentioned as the next greatest Dutch player after Cruyff, was Cruyff’s prodigy.

“He inspired us a lot, all of the youth of Holland,” Van Basten said. “All of the young boys wanted to play like him.”

Few could play like him, but those who grasped the ideas he put forward and were lucky enough to work with him became insatiable students who hung on his every word.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 05: Ronald Koeman, Coach of Benfica with Dutch football legend Johann Cruyff before UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between Barcelona and SL Benfica at the Camp Nou on April 5, 2006 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Current U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann was a great admirer of Cruyff’s and back in 2011, when Barcelona beat Manchester United to win the UEFA Champions League at Wembley, this is what Klinsmann had to say.

“Barcelona was not born in the last couple of years. It was born, the style of play now, in the early 90s through Johan Cruyff,” Klinsmann said. “It took 20 years for that moment today that we see and all admire.”

Cruyff himself looks back at his days playing in the NASL in the United States fondly and said it was a “great experience” where he “learned a lot of things, especially in managing” from 1979-81. He is loved the world over and through his charity work and his many institutes set up to help athletes and those less fortunate, he has given so much to so many people.

Jordi Cruyff, his son, played for Barcelona, Manchester United and Holland and followed in his footsteps. Just last week he spoke about his father’s legacy in the game.

“It will be a legacy, the way of playing football. The philosophy behind it is always risky, always dominant, always attractive, always offensive. Successful, obviously, but above all to believe in yourself,” Cruyff said. “My father is not a believer of counter-attack football but of dominating football all the time. Like chess. What does the opponent do? Then I will do this. I will add something else. That is what he added.

“There are a lot of coaches nowadays who have a big part of my father’s philosophy in their own philosophy. That’s the legacy. The way we see football today partly based on the idea he brought into football 30 years ago as a coach. He’s a legend.”

His son, Jordi, also summed up his father’s playing career quite simply.

“I think he [Johan] is one of the legends who is always going to be spoken about with Pele and Maradona. The rest of us… we are just mortals. We come and we go.”

Cruyff’s life may have come and gone, but his philosophy will remain forever. His legacy is everlasting and it has shaped the modern game more than any other individual.

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova