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Wood hopes to provide spark for US soccer with back better

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) As a youngster in Hawaii, the significance of the World Cup never dawned on forward Bobby Wood. Full disclosure: He didn’t even know what it was.

He understands now.

With his balky back feeling better, Wood hopes to provide a spark for the Americans as the squad resumes the final round of World Cup qualifying. He’s been playing hurt in high-stress games with Hamburg, which wasn’t assured of Bundesliga survival until the last day of the season.

A chance for him to exhale – if for only a moment. A week after the end of his first Bundesliga season, he reported to the U.S. national team ahead of Saturday’s exhibition against Venezuela. After that: World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago at Commerce City on June 8 and at Mexico three days later.

“It’s always good to be back here – to be back with the boys,” Wood said.

Having become a regular in the starting lineup alongside Jozy Altidore, Wood missed a pair of qualifiers in March due to his aching back, which he said is still “a little bit naggy here and there,” but calmed through treatment and exercise.

“I’m healthy,” he said.

Introduced to soccer while growing up in Hawaii, he didn’t know the importance of World Cup because, “back in the day, they didn’t show so much soccer. You didn’t have it all the time on normal TV. It was more difficult to get all that information on the island.”

Naturally, his feelings have intensified.

“I’m honored to have the chance to possibly be at the World Cup,” Wood said. “I’m going to give it my all and try and help the team get there.”

While he was sidelined, the U.S. earned a win and a draw to move into fourth place in the six-team final round of North and Central America and the Caribbean. There are six games remaining, and the top three teams qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia. The fourth-place squad will go to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“I was pretty confident the team would get the job done,” said Wood, who was bothered by knee injuries earlier in his career that had him considering stepping away from soccer. “I thought they did a really good job getting the result.”

Wood is one of four forwards competing for playing time, along with Altidore, Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey, who also could be dropped into an attacking midfield role. Wood has been soaking up as much knowledge as he can from Dempsey, who is one goal from tying Landon Donovan (57) for most in U.S. national team history.

“You can learn a lot from an experienced player,” Wood said. “That’s why he’s there. I’ll try to pick off whatever he’s got for me.”

Not that long ago, the 24-year-old Wood met with U.S. coach Bruce Arena in Germany to discuss the expectations for him and the team.

“Very smooth, direct,” Wood said of their meeting. “It was good.”

Just be himself: That was essentially Arena’s message.

“He’s a little different than our other strikers. That’s a real plus,” Arena said. “The four guys we’re going to have in camp, they’re good strikers and we can certainly utilize all of them.”

Wood was off to a solid start for Hamburg and scored the game-winner against Borussia Moenchengladbach on March 12. He didn’t score in his final nine games, leaving his final totals at five goals in 28 Bundesliga matches plus four in four cup games.

His coach, Markus Gisdol, recently said Wood was playing through a knee injury that required painkillers, according to Kicker.

All the while, Hamburg was trying to remain in the first tier. It is the only club to have played every season in the top tier since the Bundesliga’s formation in 1963, and it took Luca Waldschmidt’s 88th-minute goal in a 2-1 win over Wolfsburg on May 20 to keep the streak going.

“The last 15 games were like a final for us,” Wood said. “It was very exciting but tough. I’m just happy we got through it.”

FOLLOW LIVE, Gold Cup: USMNT closes out group v. Panama

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It’s a fully-changed starting XI for the U.S. Men’s National Team as it closes out the group stage against Panama at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

Omar Gonzalez and Matt Miazga start together in the backline, Jozy Altidore returns to the starting lineup up top, and Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis feature on the wings alongside Altidore. Ten of the 11 players now ply their trade in MLS, including the Gonzalez, who recently moved to Toronto FC.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: USMNT takes on Panama in Kansas City]

Hit the link above to follow along for the next two hours, and check back on PST for a full recap and in-depth analysis after the final whistle.

Must-See Goal: Wayne Rooney v. Orlando City

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I’m going to go out on a limb and say it. Wayne Rooney just scored the most amazing goal in Audi Field’s young history.

In the 10th minute of D.C. United’s match against Orlando City SC on Wednesday evening, Rooney noticed Orlando’s Brian Rowe straying way off his line. And so, with an audacious but accurate attempt, Rooney let fly from 65 yards and SCORED. Just check this goal out below.

[FOLLOW LIVE: USMNT v. Panama]

Rooney took advantage of a crazy bounce and with his literal first touch, unleashed a thunderbolt that Rowe couldn’t catch up to. It automatically becomes one of the top contenders for the MLS Goal of the Year, and should make it on every top ten countdown this evening and tomorrow.

Benfica: Atletico Madrid make $143 million bid for Felix

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The legend of Joao Felix appears to have reached full market value potential.

The 19-year-old Portuguese striker is coming off a breakout year for Benfica, and now the Portuguese giants have received an impressive $143 million offer from Atletico Madrid for Felix. The club confirmed the offer in a statement on its website, stating it was analyzing the deal. Felix has a $136.5 million release clause in his contract, but it appears the additional $7 million is in processing costs.

[READ: Kroos wants to retire at Real Madrid]

Felix was outstanding at Benfica last year, scoring 15 goals with seven assists in 26 league games and three goals and one assist in five Europa League game. Felix has already made his international debut for Portugal.

If confirmed, Felix would become the fifth-most expensive transfer in world history, and the second-most expensive transfer for a teenager behind Kylian Mbappe.

AFCON: Nigeria 1st team through to round of 16 at African Cup, joined by host Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Former champion Nigeria became the first team to reach the last 16 at the African Cup of Nations after defender Kenneth Omeruo‘s second-half goal delivered a 1-0 win over Guinea on Wednesday.

The Nigerians were unimpressive in the first half in Alexandria but lifted their game in the second. Alex Iwobi‘s rasping shot was pushed away by Guinea goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone and Ahmed Musa almost set up Odion Ighalo on a counterattack.

The former Chelsea defender Omeruo did what the forwards had not been able to do when he beat Kone with a glancing header at the near post off Moses Simon’s corner in the 73rd minute.

Nigeria, which won the title in 2013, has two wins from two games in Group B. It beat Burundi 1-0 in its first match and now needs a draw from its last fixture against Madagascar to finish top and stay in Alexandria for the last 16.

There was more good news for Nigeria when Samuel Kalu came on as a substitute near the end. The midfield player collapsed at a training session the day before the first game, suffering from dehydration, and was hospitalized.

Coach Gernot Rohr rested captain John Obi Mikel against Guinea.

Elsewhere, Egypt also confirmed a place in the knockout stages with a 2-0 win over the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ahmad Elmohamady and Mohamed Salah each scored in the first half to lead the Pharoahs to victory, the hosts second-straight win in the competition.

In the other match of the day, Uganda tied Zimbabwe, 1-1.