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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.”

Solskjaer warns “could have been one of those nights” for Manchester United

Manchester United Solskjaer
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clearly relieved after his dominant but wasteful Manchester United finally beat goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson and Copenhagen in extra time of their Europa League quarterfinal in Cologne.

“I think it was just one of those nights,” he said after the win. “I think we deserved to win, that’s clear, but they made it very hard for us.”

Johnsson made 13 saves as United out-attempted the minusM-1000 underdogs from Denmark by a 26-9 margin. The Red Devils blocked several Copenhagen chances in tight, making the Danes’ total of zero shots on target a bit deceiving.

[ RECAP: Manchester United 1-0 Copenhagen ]

“Their keeper was unbelievable and we hit the post a few times,” Solskjaer said. “It could have been one of those nights that you end up with a shootout. We had to block, defend well and they made it hard for us.”

But United was clearly the better team on the day, as expected. Juan Mata entered late in the game and was an influential sub in extra time.

He says the Red Devils were a bit beat up on a hot night in Germany.

“The team is quite tired physically,” Mata said. “At this stage of this season it is important to win games like today and we go through. We stay in Germany for quite some time and hopefully we can win.

“Both teams got a little tired and there were more spaces and more chances. They played some good football and credit to them. We could have scored more goals in extra time but we are through.”

United will meet either Sevilla or Wolves in a dynamite semifinal in one week.

Manchester United breaks through Copenhagen in extra time

Manchester United - Copenhagen
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Manchester United – Copenhagen: The Europa League’s biggest underdogs of the quarterfinals took the tournament favorites to extra time before succumbing 1-0 in Cologne.

Bruno Fernandes highlighted his Man of the Match performance by converting an Anthony Martial-won penalty in the 95th minute for Manchester United, the only way past Copenhagen’s terrific goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson.

But Fernandes gave United a scare, needing care for his hamstring at the final whistle.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Johnsson made 13 saves, seven from inside the box, to keep Copenhagen within a sucker punch of eliminating the Red Devils over 90 minutes.

Manchester United heads to Dusseldorf for an Aug. 17 semifinal against the winner of Tuesday’s tilt between Wolves and Sevilla.


Three things we learned

1. Copenhagen plays prime tournament soccer: The heaviest underdogs in the quarterfinals, Copenhagen executed a traditional 4-4-2 in a less-traditional low block for much of the match. The low block wasn’t the surprise, but instead of two banks of five, the rows of four with two men hassling up front challenged United for time and helped spring a number of dangerous counters. The Danes opened up in extra time after going behind, but taking it to extra time was more than many expected out of them.

2. VAR denies the Red Devils: A rout would’ve been on if this match was staged a year ago without VAR, as the assistant referee twice allowed United goals to go to video. Harry Maguire was offside before assisting the first would-be Red Devils goal, while Mason Greenwood was off before ripping a rocket off the far post and into the goal.

3. Bruno is a beast: Fernandes was everywhere, cueing up his teammates for chances when he wasn’t smashing them off the frame in a bid to win it himself. The Portuguese playmaker registered three key passes, put three of his five shots on target, and won the majority of his duels on top of scoring the game’s lone goal (SofaScore). Now United must hope his late leg injury was just a product of 120 minutes and nothing major.

Man of the Match

Fernandes, and yes we had him here before he smashed his penalty home. Fernandes is now the Europa League’s leading scorer with seven goals between Sporting Lisbon and United.


Manchester United – Copenhagen recap

United has plenty of the ball in the first 10 minutes but Copenhagen provided legitimate danger that Eric Bailly managed in his own six.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka blocked a cross with his face and needed treatment, looking quite dazed before returning to the game.

Another Copenhagen chance was blocked in the six by Bailly (again), who proved a wise choice over Victor Lindelof.

VAR had a look at an early United goal and rightly chalked Harry Maguire offside in the build-up. And it took Mason Greenwood’s hammer off the far post off the board for offside early in stoppage time.

Copenhagen was in it at the break. Would United pay?

[ MORE: Lukaku leads Inter past Bayer Leverkusen ]

The early stages of the second half remained with the Red Devils, Copenhagen parking all its men behind the ball at times.

Rashford flubbed a chance to shoot or pass to Paul Pogba when Bruno Fernandes spotted him at the back post just after the hour mark.

Fernandes tried his luck from distance in the 63rd, ripping a shot off the far post.

Ex-Everton man Bryan Oviedo nearly put Copenhagen ahead in the 66th only to see Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bailly clog his shooting lane after Rasmus Falk dazzled to get into the box.

Karl-Johan Johnsson made a flying save on Anthony Martial to force an 84th-minute corner that came to nothing for United.

Johnsson denied Martial again in-tight at the start of stoppage time, but the high was short-lived as the Frenchman was dropped in the box moments later.

Fernandes stepped to the spot and used a stuttering run-up before blasting his penalty home.

Martial nearly had it 2-0 after the restart when he dribbled through the Copenhagen 18 but took it himself instead of laying off to Juan Mata in what would’ve been a fairly straight-forward chance for the Spaniard.

Johnsson denied Fernandes at the end of the first 15 minutes of extra time, United unfortunate to not score on the ensuing corner when Mata’s shot was blocked to Lindelof, who fired off the outside of the post.

Lindelof made a fine intervention to block a close-range equalizer bid in the 116th.

Inter Milan rides early goals past Bayer Leverkusen

Inter Milan - Bayer Leverkusen
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While Manchester United and Copenhagen played chess across the country, Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen were staging double jumps all over a checkerboard in Dusseldorf.

Romelu Lukaku and Nicolo Barella scored twice in six first-half minutes before Kai Havertz answered in the 24th to account for all the goals in Inter’s 2-1 defeat of Bayer.

Lukaku has scored in nine-straight UEL matches, a new record.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Inter now waits for an Aug. 16 semifinal in Cologne, where it will meet the winner of Tuesday’s match between Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk

Bayer now must settle for the Europa League again via its fifth-place finish in the Bundesliga.

The three goals in the nine minutes were highlighted by Lukaku doing his best “Harry Kane versus Leicester City” falling down finish.

Nicola Barella put Inter ahead after a quarter-hour when he made the most of a loose ball outside the 18.

A Manchester United connection saw Inter ahead by two when Ashley Young found Romelu Lukaku and the Belgian striker maintained his composure while being dragged to the ground, beating Lukas Hradecky with a low shot.

Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland’s interplay near the box ended with the transfer rumor mainstay slipping a shot home to bring Bayer back within one.

Lukaku had penalty decisions taken off the board by VAR in each half.

Who’s next for Manchester United if Sancho stays at Dortmund?

Chiesa to Manchester United
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The transfer rumor mill is usually buzzing this time of year, but it’s nearly a cacophony following Michael Zorc’s announcement that Jadon Sancho will be staying at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Reports say Manchester United is not quitting on the idea of Sancho at Old Trafford, but here are some other targets if the Red Devils have to look away from the English phenom.

Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina

Linked with United for some time including a Monday nod from Football-Italia, Chiesa’s approximately $80 million price tag is high but half of what Dortmund is asking for Sancho.

The versatile playmaker has often been linked with Juventus, though Fiorentina is loathe to do business with The Old Lady unless absolutely necessary after big sales of Roberto Baggio and Federico Bernardeschi to Juve in the past.

The 22-year-old already has 17 Italian caps and scored 10 goals with six assists for La Viola this season in Serie A play, career bests in both.

Douglas Costa, Juventus

This one could become even more feasible if Juve latched onto Chiesa.

Juve desperately needs to get younger and Costa doesn’t figure to fit into the plans of Andrea Pirlo, a month away from his 30th birthday.

Costa works better on the right side and would be a worker bee looking to set up Rashford and Martial or cut back for Bruno Fernandes. He boasts double-digit assist seasons in the Bundesliga (Bayern), Serie A (Juve), and Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk).

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 19: Douglas Costa (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Raul Jimenez, Wolves

This one still feels like a long shot of long shots given the players’ age and status at Wolves, but the El Tri star has been linked with United in the past.

Jimenez doesn’t solve the wing issue presented by Sancho staying at BVB, and you’d fancy the Red Devils to go after one of Wolves’ wingers before Jimenez.

But Solskjaer enjoys Marcus Rashford at left wing and could use Anthony Martial at right wing a bit more often than center forward. Throw in Mason Greenwood and the boss would have a lot of permutations to use around Bruno Fernandes in a front three or four.

Ivan Perisic, Inter Milan

Mentioned as part of a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez, that’s less on the cards after the Chilean accepted a Man United payoff to move to Inter for free.

The 31-year-old favors the left wing and Inter would be happy to offload him after Bayern declined its option to buy the loanee who managed seven goals and 10 assists in just over 1600 minutes.

That’s pretty good output for a part-time player who kept some tread on the tires.

Perisic to Manchester United
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 15: Ivan Perisic of Croatia (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

James Rodriguez, Real Madrid

If you’re sensing a thread amongst most of these players, it’s no surprise considering United has a wage scale to meet the needs of many wantaways.

Real desperately wants to get something for Colombian star James, who at 29 played less than 800 minutes for La Liga’s champions this season.

His two-year loan stint at Bayern also saw him as a part-time player, but like Perisic a productive one. James scored 15 times with 20 assists over two seasons with the Bavarians.

Kingsley Coman, Bayern Munich

This would cost a lot of dough.

The 24-year-old has been a part of nine-straight league winners between Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, and Bayern.

Okay that’s cheating a bit considering his Ligue 1 crowns came off a handful of appearances over two seasons at the Parc des Princes.

But the left and right winger might be on for a change of scenery with Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane set to dominate the preferential places at Bayern.