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Williams eager to lead USMNT rebuild

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Danny Williams is living his dream in the Premier League.

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A regular for Huddersfield Town, driving on their fairytale from midfield with his tattoos, pristine hair and beard and all action displays impressing Terriers’ fans, Williams is arguably in the best form of his career.

He is relaxed, confident and quick-witted as we caught up at Huddersfield’s Canal Side training complex in the center of the West Yorkshire town.

Why wouldn’t he be?

Williams, 28, is playing in his first-ever season in England’s top-flight after slogging away in the second-tier for four years with Reading before moving to Huddersfield in the summer on a two-year deal. He hailed their fans as “incredible” and saluted their start to the season as former USMNT forward and current Huddersfield coach David Wagner has them three points off the top 10 with the busy festive season ahead.

Despite their fine start to the season, Premier League survival is still the main aim and Williams has been a big part of the underdogs impressing in their debut season in the PL.

His fine form for Huddersfield has led to a return to the U.S. national team after a prolonged absence through injury and a combination of both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena not calling him up. And not only was Williams called up to the USMNT for the first time in over a year for the 1-1 draw with Portugal last month, he also captained the Stars and Stripes for the first time in his career.

Beaming from ear to ear, Williams is still a proud man over a month removed from that draw in Leiria.

“Obviously it was a huge honor for me. I didn’t realize how big it was in the moment,” Williams admitted. “I played the game, tried to lead like I always do but it wasn’t until afterwards I realized. It had such a big impact. I got a lot of messages from everyone. It was a really proud moment and that’s why I really enjoyed it, because you go from not being invited to being captain of the team. It was also because Alejandro Bedoya had a knock. He would have captained the team but I was happy to step in.”

Williams hasn’t had the luxury of stepping in for the U.S. for quite some time.

His last USMNT’s appearance came in the friendly against New Zealand in Oct. 2016 and although he thanked Klinsmann for giving him the chance to first represent the U.S. way back in 2011 (he was the first new player Klinsmann called up) he revealed he never felt like he was truly trusted.

“I get it, I had a few bad performances but maybe because I never felt the trust, you know? When I get a lot of trust, I pay it back with performances and I think that’s the same with every player,” Williams said. “If you have confidence from the manager and all the team, you can perform, and I just feel like I’ve never really been given that kind of trust. But that’s all in the past. I’m a bit more mature and older now and nobody can break me down that easy. I’ve shown people I can fight and I want to leave that in the past.”

Asked if he was ever given a reason for not being called up by Klinsmann again, or as to why he was not picked by Arena during his ill-fated 11 months in charge of the USMNT, Williams revealed some intriguing details.

“It was frustrating but nobody really ever talked to me or gave me a reason,” Williams explained. “I didn’t even know what the reason was, you know? Some people might have said ‘you only play in the Championship’ or whatever, but I think the Championship is still a strong league and I think you could see last year with Newcastle and even the teams down there now they are big teams, big, big clubs and good football players. I could never understand why I was invited because I think in the four years at Reading I did, basically, everything in my power to show the world that I am still on a good level and I can perform. Obviously I was a bit unlucky with injuries but in my opinion nobody really spoke to me.

“Some people wanted to play the MLS guys a little more but whatever, but Bruce Arena emailed me and said ‘you’re in the picture but I haven’t really seen you.’ And I thought that was a bit strange because you must know your players, don’t you? Especially because I am not 18. I was around the camp but I read something where he said the players Klinsmann invited were German-Americans, I don’t know what it was, but I felt a bit weird about it because I played on a high level for basically now eight or nine years. But again, I didn’t really want to say anything because, what could I do? I can’t influence if a manager likes me or not but I think we could all get a fair chance. It was a bit weird but hopefully now that I’m in the Premier League, that will change.”

Williams has moved from the suburbs of London to Manchester and is now very much in the PL circle. He includes Manchester City’s Leroy Sane among his close friends and sees him as “sort of a little brother” who he takes under his wing.

His play his developed from a true holding midfielder to being a two-way midfielder who chipped in with several stunning goals during his time at Reading. Williams’ position has changed and it certainly seems like he would be a valuable foil alongside Michael Bradley in the U.S. midfield in the years to come.

Back to the USMNT, does Williams still want to be a leading man for the USA moving forward?

“To be honest, you have to look at the U.S. national team at the moment and who is actually playing on a high level, I mean playing in Europe in the big leagues, there are not so many players,” Williams said. “In my opinion, as long as I play in the Premier League, get the minutes under my belt, I think I have every right to be a bit surprised if they don’t invite me. Again, that’s not in my hands. The only thing I can influence is my own performance and how I do with the team and hopefully that earns me a spot with the U.S.”

Williams sees a bright future not only for himself with the USMNT, but also for the band of young Americans coming through the ranks, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie in the Bundesliga.

The midfielder rose into the Bundesliga himself as a youngster with Freiburg and Hoffenheim, before moving to Reading in 2013, and he believes that both McKennie and Pulisic will lead the U.S. in the future, supported by a growing cast of young stars who played against Portugal last month.

“They’re playing a big part of the future. I got to play with Weston McKennie and there’s huge potential there but not only him, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta, I think they are all ready to be in Europe. Then obviously Pulisic is already a superstar in the States and he performs on a high level, when you see him playing against Real Madrid in the Champions League, that is top class and I wouldn’t be surprised if he soon got a move away from Dortmund. They will play a big, big part because they are a new generation. They are kids and I remember when I was that young. They are all hungry. They are all super excited. I think that’s what it is. They want to be hungry because they still want to learn something and they like the competition. They have a big, big part in the future.”

That said, the future for the USMNT doesn’t seem that exciting right now.

With the U.S. currently without a coach after Arena stepped down following the failure to make the 2018 World Cup, who would Williams like to see appointed as the next USMNT head coach and what qualities do they need to have?

He has a simple checklist: give everyone, not matter what league they play in, a clean slate.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a U.S. coach. It is international football. I think we should get someone who has experience and has proper ambition with a proper plan and doesn’t prefer and trust either American players or American-German players or just American-Mexican players. He should give everybody a fair chance,” Williams said. “He should look at how all of these potential players perform in their clubs and should really start from scratch. The U.S. is such a great country and not making the World Cup, it’s kind of like a scandal.”

Most would say that’s being polite.

The U.S. not reaching its first World Cup since 1986 has dominated headlines across the American soccer landscape for the past two months and with no coach, and outgoing U.S. Soccer president in Sunil Gulati, and big question marks over a host of veteran players, the USMNT is in dire straits and at a major crossroads.

Williams winced when asked if it hurt to watch on from afar as the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and pointed to some politics behind-the-scenes as a major reason for the USA’s scandalous failure.

“Of course it hurts. I am obviously 28 now. I saw that as an opportunity to make a name for myself again. I thought ‘okay, I am now in the Premier League and hopefully I get a chance to get called in and show what I can do.’ I think there are too many political things going on behind-the-scenes,” Williams said. “I wasn’t really close enough with the team for that amount of time so I can’t really talk, or give too much information, because I don’t really know about what happened.

“Obviously I spoke to the boys when I was in Portugal. Everybody has a different view. I heard from a few people that they tried to ‘market the MLS’ a bit more, in the [World Cup] qualifying games and get a name for the MLS. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about quality and bringing the best players and having a plan. That is it. It is not only the U.S. that failed. Holland failed. Italy. Chile. This is unbelievable. Something is obviously going wrong because other smaller nations, they are speeding up their process. When I look at Iceland, they are a small country but they are actually playing at the World Cup.”

As his star continues to rise in the Premier League with Huddersfield, Williams will no doubt become an increasingly important figure as the USMNT rebuild from a monumental failure.

He hopes other talented young American players follow in the footsteps of Pulisic, McKennie and Co. to test themselves among the best leagues on the planet.

“It is very important that you don’t lose the focus because at the end of the day the USA is such a big country with so many great athletes, there is so much potential,” Williams said. “When I see the young boys I played with against Portugal, I am sure there are more out there who are hungry and happy to learn and make the step to Europe to get out of their comfort zone and be successful. That is what it needs and what it takes.”

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

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Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.