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Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Platini vows to return to soccer after “end of long nightmare”

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PARIS (AP) Banned former UEFA President and FIFA vice president Michel Platini says he is planning to return to soccer after Swiss federal prosecutors confirmed he was not being charged in an investigation into possible financial wrongdoing.

[ MORE: Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool — Los Blancos make it three straight ]

Platini says in a statement it’s “the end of a long nightmare for my family and those close to me.”

Since September 2015, the former France midfielder had the status of “between a witness and an accused person” in criminal proceedings opened against then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter. No criminal case was ever opened against Platini.

The evidence related to Blatter authorizing FIFA to pay Platini $2 million in uncontracted back salary in 2011.

[ MORE: Ronaldo hints at Real Madrid exit | Bale does the same ]

FIFA’s ethics committee also investigated Platini’s request to FIFA for pension contributions he was not entitled to. It was agreed by Blatter and added more than $1 million to Platini’s retirement fund.

Platini was eventually banned for four years, through October 2019. Both he and Blatter denied wrongdoing but Court of Arbitration for Sport judges refused to overturn his ban and that of Blatter’s.

[ UCL FINAL: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

The case meant Platini was removed from the UEFA presidency and he was barred from trying to succeed Blatter as FIFA president in 2016.

Platini, a former France captain and coach, says “I will come back: where, when, how? It’s too early to say. But I will come back into football.

“Because football is my life and I deny anyone the right to deprive me of my life,” the 62-year-old Platini says.

Neymar appears in good shape after first week with Brazil

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TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (AP) Neymar finished his first full week of training with Brazil on Saturday in apparent good shape ahead of the upcoming World Cup after foot surgery.

The striker continued his recovery, dribbling and passing at high speed in Brazil’s last training session on home soil before the national team sets up camp in London on Monday.

The Brazilian has been recovering from right foot surgery in March.

[ MORE: Neymar “annoyed” by latest (and constant) transfer speculation ]

Earlier in the week, members of Brazil’s coaching staff said Neymar was fit to train but they tried to reduce pressure on him by saying it would take time until he delivered his best performances.

Left back Filipe Luis said Neymar did well in training but still needs to forget the injury.

“I had a serious injury in 2010 and I came back with fear. In the first chance I had in a game, I went with it all so I could lose that fear. I saw it didn’t hurt and I just forgot,” Luis said. “It will be the same with Neymar, the first time an opponent kicks him … he will forget it.”

In the first training session in Teresopolis, outside Rio de Janeiro, Neymar occasionally dragged his right foot onto the pitch. On Thursday he took his right boot off, sat down for a few minutes and looked upset. Once the football was underway, he seemed as fit as his teammates despite accidentally kicking the pitch with his injured foot. He soon afterward got back in action.

[ MORE: Messi: It would be ‘terrible’ to see Neymar at Real Madrid ]

In the first and only Brazil open training session, with fans screaming his name on the sidelines, a playful Neymar nutmegged right-back Danilo and flipped the ball over Luis’ head.

Throughout the week Neymar showed his finishing was sharpening, especially from close range.

After Saturday’s training Neymar welcomed his girlfriend, actress Bruna Marquezine, and family members to the Granja Comary training ground.

With Brazil players off duty for the rest of the day, Neymar is expected to take some teammates back to his mansion in Mangaratiba, near Rio.

The 20-strong squad will meet again Sunday morning at the Brazilian football confederation headquarters in a visit to their museum.

Players then travel to London hours later and will set up camp until June 8 at Tottenham’s training ground.

Ronaldo hints at exit: “It has been very nice playing for Real Madrid”

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In the minutes after helping Real Madrid win their third straight UEFA Champions League trophy, Cristiano Ronaldo dropped the most unexpected of transfer bombshells on the world.

[ MORE: Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool — Los Blancos make it three straight ]

With three more seasons remaining on his current contract, Ronaldo appeared to hint that he expects leave the club this summer, at the age of 33.

“It has been very nice playing for Real Madrid,” he told the television broadcast with tears in his eyes, revealing that he will announce his plans for his future “in the coming days.”

Gareth Bale, who scored Saturday’s winning goal, said something quite similar during his post-game remarks.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

Perhaps it’s not the most surprising development on the whole, given his age and the obvious need for a youth movement at the Santiago Bernabeu, but to choose that stage — mere moments after winning his fifth career UCL title (four with Madrid) — to tease something so newsworthy and unexpected was certainly eye-opening.

Gareth Bale hints at Premier League transfer

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Gareth Bale jumped off the bench with Real Madrid drawing 1-1 with Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Moments later he scored one of the greatest goals in the history of European finals via an outrageous overhead kick, then added another late on to seal a 13th European title for Real.

[ MORE: Mohamed Salah injured ]

Yet speaking to BT Sport after the game, Bale’s mind was quickly on why he didn’t start the game as Zinedine Zidane instead went with Isco and Karim Benzema in support of Cristiano Ronaldo up top.

“Obviously I was very disappointed not to start the game, I felt I deserved it but the manager makes the decisions,” Bale said. “The best I have been doing is to come on and make an impact, I certainly did…

[ MORE: Player ratings | Recap ]

Asked about a potential move back to the Premier League, Bale had the following to say.

“I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season. I had an injury five, six weeks in but fit ever since. I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it and go from there,” Bale said.

That sound you can hear is the phone of Bale’s agent ringing…

[ MORE: Ronaldo also hints at Real Madrid exit

Seriously, he has every right to question why he wasn’t playing more often and the Welsh international has been in fine form in recent weeks with six goals in his last four games.

Zidane made the right call because Real Madrid won their third-straight European title but it appears that Bale is getting fed up with being the odd man out at the Santiago Bernabeu.

If that was his final game for Real, what a way to go out. Now the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and others will be battling to bring Bale back to the Premier League, with his former club Tottenham said to have first refusal on buying him but surely they’d be unlikely to afford his wages and transfer fee.