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Cameron eager for USMNT return in World Cup qualifiers

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MANCHESTER, England — Geoff Cameron was missing for the U.S. national team in their opening 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica back in November.

The USMNT lost both after shaky defensive displays and a lot has changed since the last time he suited up for the Stars and Stripes.

[ MORE: Cameron talks injury, Stoke

Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and Bruce Arena has come in and now all the focus for the U.S. is on the next two World Cup qualifiers against Honduras this Friday in San Jose, Calif. and then next Tuesday against Panama in Panama City.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk from his home in Manchester, England before he flew out to link up with the national team — in-between Cameron was named as Stoke’s man of the match in their narrow 2-1 defeat to Premier League leaders Chelsea on Saturday — Cameron knows all of the pressure is on the USMNT in the next seven days with the U.S. sitting bottom of the Hex.

“I think the pressure is on us. It is a must win situation,” Cameron said. “Going down to Panama, it’s a tough place to play. The environment, everything is against us when we go down there. They are good players. They are savvy and they have technical ability, good on and off the ball. They are creative, quick on the ball and fast and they are slick in certain ways. They have an understanding on how to take advantage of certain situations.

“We need to be more aware of that and have an understanding of that going into these games because we know it’s going to be difficult at home with Honduras coming in and they’re going to try and make it difficult for us to play the game how we want to play. Also going down to Panama, we know it’s going to be tough to play down there. We might have to sit back and defend a little bit, weather the storm and then hit them on the counter. We have to be strategically aware of all these situations teams are going to be throwing at us.”

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Cameron, 31, missed four months through injury this season after injuring his MCL in an innocuous challenge at the end of Stoke’s victory at Hull City back in October, 2016.

After playing the full 90 minutes in central midfield in each of Stoke’s last three Premier League games, the versatile defender/midfielder is now back fit and ready to lead the U.S. defense after watching on helplessly as the team succumbed to defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica back.

The nature of those defeats ultimately cost Klinsmann his job.

“It was so frustrating to watch because as a team we didn’t play well and as individuals and as a team we weren’t up to par,” Cameron said, grimacing. “Sitting down and watching the game, it was so frustrating because I knew I was a player who could help and being that player that I thought they needed whether it be a physical attribute or the mental attitude or that toughness and bite we seemed to be missing in those two games. It was difficult. Obviously you have those ups and downs in your career and that was kind of the down point. I’m excited to get back and happy I’m fit now.

“We have two massive qualifiers we need to take care of business. We are in a bit of a tough spot right now. In the qualifying we always seem to have these ups and downs and that’s part of it. We know these two games here are key with Honduras at home and Panama away, we know we need to get six points, minimum four. That’s our goal.”

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That will be a tough goal to achieve, especially with Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin all out of the squad through injury as Arena will have to shuffle his defense for two crucial games.

Cameron could well line up at right back with Yedlin and Johnson out. Wherever he plays, he’s confident he can help the USMNT achieve their goal of getting their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track.

“This is like the number one question I’m asked,” Cameron laughs as we discuss his best position. “I will continue to say I feel like my best position is either center half or defensive central midfield. Those are the positions I’ve thrived in when I’ve played there in the Premier League for Stoke. I can play right back, no problem, and I’ve got a bunch of games under my belt and I’ve proved to myself that I can play in a number of positions. I don’t think that a lot of players who can play these positions at a high level and do it as consistently or well as I can, especially going from one position to another and being able to change and understand the roles.

“I still say my best strengths are either for defensive center mid or center half. I love playing center half and partnering up with Brooksy [John Brooks] in Copa America, our back four were solid and we just had a really good partnership and understanding. Also, this season and throughout my career I’ve found myself playing in defensive midfield and sitting in the hole to protect the back four. I know I can do that and I’ve shown that I can do that with Stoke City, especially playing against some of the best players in the world. I’m confident in my ability and I can play in those positions but like I said all along, it is whatever position the coach needs me in and I am willing to play and help out the team. It’s not about me. It’s about the team and putting the team first and doing whatever I can to help the team be successful.”

There are now plenty of players back in the fold who have tasted success in qualifying and at tournaments with the U.S. over the last decade.

With Cameron back fit, plus Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard also returning to full fitness, Arena will have plenty of experience to call on for these key qualifiers.

“My first experience when I was first coming through, when we were in a tough spot, we would look to guys like Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra,” Cameron explained. “Those were guys you looked up to, captains and experienced guys who had been through the ups and downs of qualifiers. Going through all this before, I have that experience of ‘these are the moments where everybody needs to step up.’

“In the beginning of qualifying this time around, when we needed to beat Guatemala at home and it was a must-win game, everybody showed up together and we got the result and made it to the next round. It is one of those moments where everybody needs to be on the same page and working for one another. I think the veterans, the guys who are experienced, myself, [Alejandro] Bedoya, Tim [Howard], Jermaine [Jones] and all of these guys who have experience of going through the qualifiers, knowing what to expect and what we need to do.”

Cameron was around the USMNT’s January camp for a few days as he received treatment on his MCL injury and said he felt a “positive vibe” from the players on the training ground, with Arena and his staff giving fresh chances to players to impress and competition for places high.

That said, whoever is the manager of the U.S. Cameron knows the buck still stops with the players.

“Overall, it just comes down to us. We, as players, need to perform better than we did in the last couple of qualifiers,” Cameron said. “We need to bring that team chemistry and get that team atmosphere back. It seems that the fighting mentality was what we missed in the last few games because I didn’t see it when we were playing. We need to get that back.”

If Cameron plays against either Honduras or Panama in the next seven days, he will hit 50 caps for the U.S. national team.

48 of his caps have come in the past five years, showcasing his importance to the team over the Klinsmann era.

What will it mean for him to reach 50 caps in these upcoming qualifiers?

“It has always been a dream of mine, to play and represent my country. It’s a special thing. I don’t think people really understand it until they are actually put into the position where they are able to represent their country,” Cameron said, smiling. “You are representing your country, your national team, people that have fought for you and died for you to give you a chance to represent the United States, playing soccer. It is pretty special. Not everyone gets this opportunity and that’s why you never know when it’s going to be your last.

“Thinking back to when we played Cuba [in a friendly last October in Havana], it’s like ‘am I going to be out for another year with injury?’ I was so happy and excited that it would possibly be an opportunity to get my 50th cap against Mexico in the World Cup qualifier and I could’ve already been on 50 caps had it not been for certain games missed through injury or suspensions, then we wouldn’t be talking about it. It is definitely special. It honestly is a proud moment but every game is as special because you never know when it will be your last. That’s why you always try to take in the moment and when you put your hand on your heart and you are representing and putting on that national team jersey, you are representing everybody in your country. We are all American. We come together and we play for our country. That’s special in itself.”

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland

Report: Alexis Sanchez out until 2020 with ankle injury

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Alexis Sanchez has targeted a return to form at Inter, but that may be shelved for some time as an ankle injury picked up on international duty could keep him out of action for months.

The Chilean federation confirmed that Sanchez suffered a “dislocation of the ligaments” in his left ankle in the 0-0 friendly draw with Argentina over the weekend, but did not specify a timeframe for his recovery. However, Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri tweeted that Sanchez will not return until the calendar flips to 2020.

The injury is poorly timed for Sanchez who just broke into the Inter squad after being loaned from Manchester United. He scored his first goal in a 3-1 win over Sampdoria in late September before being sent off and suspended a match. The 30-year-old was also quality in the Champions League defeat to Barcelona, assisting Inter’s only goal.

At worst, a three-month injury layoff would see Sanchez return in mid-January, meaning he would miss the rest of the Champions League group stage as well as a host of Serie A matches. A Milan derby in early February would likely be a significant possibility for a late return.