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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.”

Cristiano Ronaldo reveals he’s playing with an injury

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Cristiano Ronaldo has revealed he’s been playing with a knee injury in recent weeks.

The Juventus and Portugal star was criticized for leaving Juventus’ win against AC Milan on Nov. 10 early, as he was substituted in the second half and then left the stadium before the end of the game.

Speaking to reporters after he scored his 99th international goal for Portugal in a 2-0 win against Luxembourg which sealed their qualification for EURO 2020, Ronaldo explained that there was no drama between himself and Juve boss Maurizio Sarri.

“There was no controversy. You [the media] want controversies. You obviously know that I don’t like to be substitute, but I have been playing with some limitations. I tried to help Juventus even playing injured. Nobody likes to be substituted, but I understand the substitutions because I wasn’t fit,” Ronaldo said.

“As well as in the last two games for Portugal, I wasn’t 100 per cent. When it’s needed to sacrifice myself for my club and the national team, I do full of pride. As you know, Inter are putting some pressure on Juventus. We are two points ahead and we can’t slip up. If we draw or lose, they will go ahead of us. So I sacrificed myself for the team. Here in the national team, you know that in case we had lost one of these last two matches, we could be out [of automatic qualification]. As you know,

Ronaldo added that he has never had big injuries throughout his career and that his current problem is “a minor injury, a minor pain” which stops him from playing at 100 percent.

This is likely to be a reoccurring theme for Ronaldo, aged 34, in the coming years.

His style of play is so physically demanding and dependent on him being 100 percent fit that the stress he has put his body under over the past 15-20 years was certain to catch up with him.

Ronaldo’s less than delighted reaction at being subbed for the second game running for Juve sparked talk of unrest, but instead it was a knee issue.

His reaction didn’t help matters, but now we know the full story and that Sarri’s comments about Ronaldo carrying an injury was correct.

Man United reveal plans for the future; financial results announced

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Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has a plan.

He shared it in a statement on Monday, as the Red Devils have picked up some momentum over the past few weeks with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side back in the hunt for a top four finish in the Premier League.

The leading man at the PL giants confirmed that producing their own young group of players in the first team is now their main aim.

“We have a clear vision in terms of football philosophy and recruitment,” Woodward said. “The significant investments that we have made in recent years in areas such as transfers, recruitment infrastructure, analytics and our Academy are already beginning to bear fruit.

“We are very proud to be shortly approaching a milestone 4,000th game featuring an Academy player, and we are particularly optimistic regarding the considerable young talent currently coming through. Our ultimate goal is to win trophies by playing exciting football with a team that fuses graduates from our Academy with world-class acquisitions.”

Academy products Marcus Rashford, Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay are key players in United’s first team this season while the likes of Brandon Williams, Axel Tuanzebe and Mason Greenwood have all gained valuable experience.

That said, Woodward will no doubt realize that United have to spend on key additions in the upcoming windows alongside promoting their talented youngsters.

Solskjaer has already mentioned that the January transfer window is something United will look at closely, as they are currently in seventh place in the Premier League table and nine points off the top four. An attacking midfielder is likely to be their key target as they failed to bring in Sporting Lisbon’s Bruno Fernandes this summer.

With regards to the finances, United’s net debt rose by $177.9 million which was in essence due to bringing in Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Daniel James this summer. However, their first quarter revenue for this year was slightly up to $175.5 million year-on-year.

They are expected to bring in $86.8 million less in the next 12 months from TV revenue and prize money as they failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, but players wages did fall 8.8 percent with the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez off the wage bill, as that now stands at $90 million.

As always, a lack of success on the pitch doesn’t really seem to hurt United off it.

Senegal, Nigeria stay perfect in African Cup qualifying

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Famara Diedhiou scored a hat trick in a game interrupted by heavy rain as Senegal beat Eswatini 4-1 on Sunday for two wins out of two in qualifying for the 2021 African Cup of Nations.

Diedhiou missed an early penalty and it was 0-0 at halftime when Senegal coach Aliou Cisse substituted Sadio Mane.

Diedhiou netted all three of his goals in a nine-minute period from the 59th to keep this year’s African Cup runner-up on course in the final stage of qualifying for the 2021 tournament. Badou Ndiaye scored Senegal’s fourth in Manzini against the kingdom formerly known as Swaziland.

Senegal lost to Algeria in the final of this year’s African Cup of Nations in Egypt and is embarking on another attempt to win the continental title for the first time.

Like Senegal, Nigeria has also won its first two of six games in the qualifiers’ decisive group stage after the Super Eagles benefited from an outstanding performance by forward Victor Osimhen in a 4-2 win over Lesotho. Osimhen scored twice and set up the other two as Nigeria again came from behind to win, like it did in its opening qualifier.

South Africa beat Sudan 1-0 with a goal by Lebogang Phiri for its first win of the qualifiers after losing to Ghana first up. Cameroon, which will host the 2021 African Cup, also registered a first win by beating Rwanda 1-0. Midfielder Ngoumo Ngamaleu scored in Cameroon’s first competitive win under new coach Toni Conceicao and first in six games.

Cameroon has already qualified as host but is still taking part in qualifying. The top two teams in each of the 12 groups will qualify with the exception of Cameroon’s group. There, the highest-placed of the other three teams – currently Mozambique – goes through to the 24-team finals which will be played in mid-2021.

Guinea and Mali sit in the qualifying positions in Group A – Mali won 2-0 in Chad and Guinea 2-0 at home to Namibia. There were also wins on Sunday for Uganda, Benin, Republic of Congo and Gabon.

More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Griezmann: Playing for Barcelona is ‘not the easiest’

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Over the summer, Barcelona shelled a whopping $135 million to land Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid.

It was a match made in heaven; the rest was supposed to be history.

Only that hasn’t been the case for the Frenchman in Barcelona.

Despite scoring a brace in his debut at the Camp Nou, Griezmann’s impact and influence on the field has quickly dwindled. In 11 league appearances with the Catalan giants, the 28-year-old has scored four goals and added three assists, signs that the World Cup winner is, in fact, struggling with his new team.

Speaking to Telefoot, Griezmann revealed that playing for Barcelona is not an easy thing to do, but that with hard work, his fortunes will turn around for the best:

“It is hard, I knew it would be, it is not the easiest place. This is a new team, a new club, new tactics, a new position. I have to work, try to understand my team-mates, after they will understand me too and it will work just like that… Critics will always be there. But I am good, I am proud of where I am. Only work pays off. I have to take confidence and it will all come just like that.”

This season, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has frequently deployed the Frenchman as a left winger, with the hope that he will link up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The positives form such an ideology have yet to be reaped, however. Griezmann is scoring a goal every 224 minutes, a career worst.

The 28-year-old, too, has played in a central role on a couple of occasions, specifically during the absences of Messi and Suarez, but it hasn’t worked out for a player that has made a career from roaming that part of the field.

The building clamor at the Camp Nou is borderline justifiable – mainly because it’s now evident that Griezmann is wrestling with adapting to the expectations and systems in place in Barcelona.

But the high-flying attacker has proven he’s worth the price time and time again, and now he’s on the record saying that he’ll do everything in his power to do so with his new club.