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Big in Texas: Stellar back Hedges continues to fly under radar

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A half-decade into his tenure with FC Dallas, Matt Hedges is nearing the title of Honorary Texan.

“Yeah, I’ve got the hat, I’ve got the boots, I love it here.,” Hedges told ProSoccerTalk, breaking into a laugh while adding, “I’ve got the guns, all that kind of stuff. I consider myself a Texan now. I just need the pickup truck then I’ll be all set.”

Whether a North Texas dealership sees this as a chance to make Hedges full-on Texan or not, the towering 26-year-old back from Indiana has already added something shiny to FCD headquarters this week when he and the Toros claimed the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title.

[ MORE: Who leads MLS Awards races? ]

It took 164 games in an FC Dallas uniform for Hedges to claim his first bit of silverware, a wait beaten in length by the club’s 19 years since earning it as the Dallas Burn in 1997.

So it’s a bit fitting that their 6-foot-4 center back’s diving header of a Mauro Diaz cross gave FCD a lead it would not relinquish on Wednesday in Frisco as the Toros claimed their second USOC title.

“Seeing us win a trophy, and knowing we went through a whole tournament without losing, how we did it with coming back, overtime games, or winning late, knowing no matter the circumstances, that we can get it done, I can’t feel any better,” Hedges said.

FC Dallas celebrates its 4-2 win over the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup soccer final, Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
FC Dallas celebrates its 4-2 win over the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup soccer final, Tuesday Sept. 13, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Hedges may be the most undercover flat-out star in MLS, and this season has been no different for the big man. He’s been in Texas since being chosen with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, but he’s rarely seen a season like this one: FCD is in the driver’s seat for the Supporters’ Shield with five regular season matches left on the docket.

That’s in no small part thanks to the captain and his center back mate Walker Zimmerman, who has come into his own. Another first rounder from the SuperDraft (No. 7 in 2013), the 23-year-old Zimmerman may put a pair of FCD backs on the Defender of the Year ballot.

[ MORE: Martino to be named Atlanta United’s first coach ]

Before going any further, credit to the FCD technical department for making those picks. Some clubs haven’t utilized the SuperDraft well twice in the last decade; FCD found big, strong, starting quality center backs in consecutive years.

According to advanced statistics site Squawka, here’s how the pair ranks amongst peers this year.

Ranks amongst MLS defenders, 2016 season
Defensive performance score:  Zimmerman 1st, Hedges 3rd
Interceptions per game: Hedges 3rd, Zimmerman 5th
Pass accuracy: Hedges 6th, Zimmerman 12th
Aerial duels per game: Zimmerman 2nd, Hedges 17th

FRISCO, TX - MARCH 06: Walker Zimmerman #25 of FC Dallas dribbles the ball against C.J. Sapong #17 of Philadelphia Union in the second half at Toyota Stadium on March 6, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Zimmerman (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“We’ve definitely developed a good partnership this season,” said the 6-foot-3 Zimmerman, who added that he entered this year with more determination than any other season.

“This is our fourth year together and our first one starting together. Our chemistry has definitely translated onto the field.”

Hedges has been a top-end MLS defender in essentially every season he’s started for the club, and he credits the partnership for raising his profile this year.

“(Zimmerman’s) evolution has made my job a lot easier,” Hedges said. “He wins a ton of balls. It makes me not have to do as much, basically. The best part of the partnership is making each other’s job easier, if that makes sense.”

[ MORE: Three things from Liverpool’s win over Chelsea ]

Their manager’s willingness to play youngsters helps, too. Oscar Pareja has championed the Academy set-up, and hasn’t shied away on the topic of playing the best Americans as soon as they are ready to roll.

“(Pareja) showing that respect and playing Americans gives them a lot of confidence,” Hedges said. “The Academy guys know if they work hard, they’ll get a shot. So in training games, they’re going hard and trying to get better because they know if they impress, they’ll get a shot on the field. I think that’s a huge thing. That’s why we’re doing so well because those young guys have that confidence.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Luis Pereira #4 of Panama vies for position to the ball against Matt Hedges #3 of the USA in the second half of their international men's friendly match at StubHub Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. The play resulted in a goal by Dempsey. The USA defeated Panama 2-0. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
In his only cap to date, Hedges vies with Panama’s Luis Pereira on Feb. 8, 2015 (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Come January, we’d love to see both Hedges and Zimmerman together in USMNT camp. After all, pairing an international duo who play together for club is certainly ideal, Hedges has a cap under his belt, and Zimmerman has donned the red, white, and blue at the U-18, U-20, and U-23 level.

The USMNT’s center back corps is a bit deeper than usual with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron thriving, the MLS duo of Matt Besler and Steve Birnbaum, and prospects Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga playing overseas.

[ MORE: Pochettino says Carter-Vickers deserves to start ]

Hedges admits he thinks about Cap No. 2 sometimes, while Zimmerman has the idea in his mind a bit more often.

“Always,” Zimmerman said. “You’re always thinking about it when you’re at this level. The next step is striving to play for the full national team.”

But there’s a treble (or triple) to sort out first. Dallas has a tough run-in, with the Galaxy home and away, trips to Real Salt Lake and NYCFC, and a visit from Seattle. But FCD has a four-point lead on LA, and a five-point lead on Colorado (The Rapids have played two fewer games.

“We want to win every trophy,” Hedges said. “The Cup and Supporters Shield are right there. We’ve put ourselves in a great spot. We try not to think about it, and our mantra is one day at a time. If we could win two more trophies, I don’t know if I could be happier.”

The USMNT player pool in Europe is as promising as ever

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It would be a challenge to put together a Best XI from Americans performing in Europe this Saturday.

That’s for two reasons, not one of them because there aren’t 11 players worthy of the honor.

One is goalkeepers: Zack Steffen is hurt and Ethan Horvath backing up Simon Mignolet.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

The other is pretty great: There are many more than 11 players thriving in Europe even with Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen, and Timothy Weah not available for selection.

It’s a weekly thing now. Gregg Berhalter trains a strong and mostly-MLS squad for January friendlies, The Americans Abroad round-ups on our site have shown plenty of progress for those eligible for the USMNT.

There was a time when Haji Wright coming off the bench for VVV-Venlo in the Netherlands had a shot at being the highlight of the weekend.

Now it’s a footnote. The 21-year-old is a regular for the relegation-threatened side after a transfer from Schalke. If anything, the discussion is about two in-a-row off the bench after a run of 10-straight league starts.

Consider this list of players, now that Aston Villa’s Indiana Vassilev and Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna made league debuts in the same weekend.

First team players in top tier leagues

Zack Steffen (Man City, on loan to Dusseldorf)
Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)
DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
Sergino Dest (Ajax)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Dusseldorf)
Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig)
Weston McKennie (Schalke)
Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)
Tyler Boyd (Besiktas)
Indiana Vassilev (Aston Villa)
Haji Wright (VVV Venlo)
Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)
Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen)
Tim Weah (Lille)

Dig deeper and there’s more: Matt Miazga (Reading), Tim Ream (Fulham), Geoff Cameron (QPR), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic), and Duane Holmes (Derby County) have been regulars in the English Championship. Same for Julian Green (Greuther Furth) in 2.Bundesliga and in-form Lynden Gooch at League One’s Sunderland. Niko Hamalainen (Kilmarnock) is a regular starter in the Scottish Premiership.

Then there are heralded U-20 and U-17 prospects Chris Gloster (Jong PSV), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich II), Richie Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven), Alex Mendez (Ajax), Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96), Johnny Cardoso (Internacional), Ulysses Lainez (Wolfsburg II). Some have taken first team bows while others have made the bench or ar eon the verge.

And we’re just talking Europe here, as the U.S. still has a bevy of reliable international players playing domestically like Jordan Morris, Miles Robinson, and Jozy Altidore amongst others. That’s leaving alone the caliber of Homegrown players being produced by Major League Soccer academies, Paxton Pomykal and Djordje Mihailovic among them (Reyna and Richards, too).

In terms of potential, American soccer is at a golden age. This makes Brian McBride’s new role as USMNT general manager even more important, as he teams up with Gregg Berhalter to put the best possible American team together for qualifying.

One thing’s for sure, the player pool is deep and no longer an excuse. Game on.

Watch Live: Burnley v. Leicester City

Watch Live: Burnley v. Leicester City (Lineups and stream link)
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Leicester City looks to build a nine-point cushion on fourth-place Chelsea with a win over Burnley at Turf . Moor on Sunday (Watch live at 9 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Brendan Rodgers‘ Foxes can go level on points with second-place Manchester City by beating the hosts.

[ STREAM: Burnley v. Leicester City ]

Fifteenth-place Burnley opens the day two points clear of the Bottom Three, losers of four-straight matches.

Jay Rodriguez and Chris Wood start up top for the Clarets against the second-stingiest back line in the Premier League.

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Burnley

Leicester City

PL Sunday Preview: Leicester travel to Burnley; Liverpool put perfect record on the line against Man Utd

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With eight Premier League fixtures on Saturday, two more remain in Matchweek 23.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley v. Leicester City  — 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Burnley are free falling and there doesn’t seem to be a safety net in sight.

The Clarets, who are two points removed from the relegation zone, head into a tough three-match window without striker Ashley Barnes. Recuperating from a hernia surgery, the 30-year-old is set to miss bouts against Leicester, Manchester United and Arsenal – to name some.

But quite possibly more alarming than that is the team’s recent form. Losing seven out of their last nine, just two points divide Burnley from the drop zone. Sean Dyche‘s team are clueless in the box, scoring one goal in four league bouts. Trouble looms over Turf Moor.

But even then, Dyche, who has made Burnley a force to be reckoned with in the past, believes his side are still a threat.

“They are a good side,” Dyche said about Leicester. “We are on a tough run of form, but I don’t think they are naive enough to think it is turn up and get the business done. We are not a million miles away.”

Can Burnley pull a Southampton and stun a top-four bound Leicester?

“We weren’t at our best [against Southampton] and we didn’t have the energy and intensity that we would have liked,” Brendan Rodgers said ahead of Sunday’s early match.

“We work twice as hard and that’s what we’ve done after every setback. We still have a lot to improve on.”

The Foxes had a rare full week to train, so one can bet that Rodgers is serious about his word.

INJURIES: Burnley —  OUT: Barnes (hernia), Gudmundsson (hamstring) | Leicester City — OUT: Ndidi (knee), Amartey (ankle), James (match fitness)

Liverpool v. Manchester United — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Manchester United are a part of the exclusive anti-Liverpool club for more than the obvious reason.

Yes, the North West Derby is one of the league’s most heated rivalries, with countless flashbacks in its 203 meetings during its over 100 years of history.

But these two, star-studded squads led by Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, respectively, also have a permeating rivalry of their own. The Reds, who have yet to taste defeat this season, have dropped points to only United.

It can be argued that Sunday’s bout may be Liverpool’s most complicated and least favorable, despite maintaining an immaculate record at home. This is the “big one” that many didn’t particularly circle on the calendar.

“It’s a very, very important football game,” Klopp said. “Very important. We have to learn how to deal with games like this in the right manner. We haven’t done bad in the past but we can still improve.

“Old Trafford [a 1-1 draw in October] was a good example, [we were] not at our best because of their quality. We have to make it more likely we’re at our best.”

Solskjaer had his tactics in place last time around; a small injection of final quality and the team would have crushed Liverpool’s aspirations of matching the Iinvincibles or Manchester City’s points record.

“The last two performances [against Liverpool] at Old Trafford we have drawn twice and been close to winning both games, so we’ve got some games to look back at and that will give us loads of belief… if we perform to our best we have a chance to win,” Solskjaer said.

Sunday presents itself as the final chance for United to pull the upset, and reaffirm why they’re a part of the exclusive club to begin with. But Liverpool are slowing becoming invincible themselves.

INJURIES: Liverpool —  OUT: Lovren (hamstring), Clyne (knee), Keïta (groin), Milner (hamstring) | Manchester United  — OUT: Tuanzebe (hamstring), McTominay (knee), Pogba (ankle)

Serie A roundup: Immobile nets hat-trick, Lazio runs over Sampdoria (video)

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Lazio’s record-extending 11th straight Serie A win highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 5-1 Sampdoria  

Like Lazio’s season, Ciro Immobile continues to make strides with each passing day.

The 29-year-old’s hat-trick powered Simone Inzaghi’s side past Sampdoria 5-1, extending his goal count to 23, nine more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaka.

 

Lazio, who are three points behind top-of-the-table Juventus and one behind second-place Inter Milan, were up three goals by the 20-minute mark. By the 65th minute, Immobile reached the three goal mark, converting from the spot.

“We would need too much time to count his records,” coach Simone Inzaghi said on Immobile’s magnificent run of form. “We are talking about an extraordinary team player. He has shown that so many times. Immobile has been doing extraordinary things for four years, I’m not surprised.”

Full of confidence, Lazio turn one of the most challenging corners of the season, as they take on rivals AS Roma defend the Italian Cup against Napoli.

“We’ll enjoy this 11th win but we have to already be thinking about the next matches,” Inzaghi said. “We know what a derby means but I can’t allow myself to think about Roma.

“We play Napoli on Tuesday, we know what the Italian Cup means for us, what it meant last year, we have it on our shirts and we will fight for it again.”

When it comes to Sampdoria, things are going from bad to ugly, quick.

“Tonight I’ll add salt and pepper and I’ll eat them alive,” Sampdoria coach Claudio Ranieri said of his players.

“Lazio was too good for us, you could clearly see the difference between the two teams, but it was without doubt the worst Samp performance since I’ve been here.”

Elsewhere

Sassuolo 2-1 Torino

Napoli 0-2 Fiorentina