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Ahead of Paraguay friendly, spring is in the air for US Soccer

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CARY, NC — Spring is the season of starting anew.

It’s fitting that the winter muck is finally giving way to warmer weather in Cary, North Carolina ahead of the upcoming friendly for U.S. Soccer against Paraguay on Tuesday. Just yesterday, there was slushy snow plaguing the skies, but today, the sun was shining over WakeMed Soccer Park to warm the air as the team took to the field to train.

There is a strange aura surrounding the USMNT at the moment. Without the hustle and bustle of an approaching World Cup to occupy the focus, there is the tentative feeling of starting anew, with a long journey ahead but new faces ready to stand to the challenges in front of them.

[ MORE: How will the USMNT line up against Paraguay? ]

“It’s been useful to get to know one another, on the field, off the field, a lot of new faces,” said interim head coach Dave Sarachan at his pre-match press conference. “It’s always exciting to build towards something, and that something is tomorrow night against Paraguay. It’ll be a great test for our young guys, and just another opportunity to get on the field and give the guys a real look against a quality opponent.”

Those new guys are abundant. The U.S. roster is chock full of fresh faces, including eight players without a single cap for the U.S. national team, and another 10 with five or fewer caps. The average age of the roster is just a hair over 23 years old. DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood combine for 85 caps – the rest of the roster combines for a total of 77.

With so many young faces, Sarachan was guarded about singling out individuals who have impressed him over the past few days in training, but was open about how this roster brings a completely new outlook to the group, and without the usual faces like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, or other veteran players, the feel of the trip has been turned upside down.

“A few things have stood out to me,” Sarachan said. “One is they have a youthful confidence; they come in from their environments where they’re playing. They’re drawing on a little bit of the past that we had against Bosnia and Portugal with this young group, so there’s a little bit of consistency for a few of the guys, but they come in with what I would say a clean slate in their minds, so they’re looking to impress by pushing each day in training.”

“Obviously with youth comes enthusiasm and energy, but I think the soccer has impressed me so far in training. Now, when the curtain goes up and the lights show tomorrow night, we’ll see how it looks when it really counts, but I think the confidence of the young group and playing without a lot of fear has been the two things that have stood out to me.”

With such a young group, Sarachan refused to really go into the play of any particular players – or get into any specifics of his lineup plan for tomorrow’s game – perhaps to keep the heads of the young players on their shoulders, but he did name drop a few youngsters he hadn’t seen before.

“I hate to single out anyone because that means I’m leaving out a lot of players,” Sarachan said as he thought long and hard about who he wanted to talk about, “but there are some new faces here that I didn’t know well…Antonee Robinson, Andrija Novakovich…maybe some of the guys I’ve gotten to know a little bit, certainly Tyler [Adams] and all the rest I’ve known, but a few guys that we brought in that…even [Erik] Palmer-Brown that I have never personally coached, just to get to know them and get to see them…nobody’s here that shouldn’t be here.”

While the head coach watches with intent, the players are eyeing their opportunity with a vigor not reflected by the atmosphere of the venue.

“Even though a lot of us weren’t involved in the qualifying campaign, we still kind of felt the disappointment and the pain of not making the World Cup,” said 20-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers. “So we definitely feel like we need to work together and work with the coach and work with US Soccer in general to get back on track and get the wheels moving again.”

Without anyone to truly take charge, and with time to develop without the pressure of a meaningful game in the near future, there’s room for the young players to grow into their roles and make an impression, and they are reflecting that.

“We’re all young players, none of us are at the peak of our careers yet, or none of us are playing at the highest level yet,” Carter-Vickers said. “So it’s definitely a stepping stone and just trying to kind of all develop together and grow up as a team and get to a World Cup level.”

So with the U.S. left out this summer and likely another 18 months until qualifying starts for the next cycle, what are the stakes of tomorrow’s match? “Starting over I think, for the whole team” said 18-year-old Tim Weah, “and setting everything straight from the get-go together as a young group.”

“If you look at the rosters at the three friendlies we’ve had,” Sarachan said, “the theme has been giving players the opportunity that we feel are going to be part of the bigger picture. And again, we don’t want to get so far ahead of ourselves. You just can’t predict a year from now, but what you hope is that all these friendlies, and all these matches, and all the programming going through 2018 will pay dividends in terms of the investment we’re making to players that we think when the qualifying begins and the next Gold Cup and all the other competitions, that they will be ready.”

Spring is in the air. The sun is shining. U.S. Soccer is playing a game in North Carolina for the first time in 12 years. There’s a very long way to go, and while the lingering disappointment is still palpable in Cary, a new leaf must be turned, and in the shadows of a college basketball state still focused on the finality of the NCAA Tournament, WakeMed Soccer Field could be the start of a new beginning. Tomorrow will shed more light on just how well the budding talent is growing.

Carlos Vela scored a celestial goal. We are blessed to have seen it

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Carlos Vela is making all other spectacular individual MLS seasons look run of the mill.

I mean, look at the gumption on this guy.

[ VIDEO: Rooney sent off, Kamara scores golazo ]

The Cancun-born playmaker left the San Jose Earthquakes back line on the beach with a soft shoe routine to give LAFC its third goal in a 4-0 win on Thursday

Vela, 30, now has 25 goals and 11 assists in 25 league matches for LAFC this season. He added two goals and an assist in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play.

But this one, yeah, this one takes the cake.

First, there’s Vela’s non-chalant dummy before picking up the pass.

Then, there’s Florian Jungwirth’s body language during and after his being cooked with a nutmeg. That’s an entire mood.

Next, Vela dribbles around the keeper and allows a slide tackler so glide past him before finishing with aplomb, the magic touch his going near post as if to say, “Can I beat this guy a second time, or do I have to use the easier route?”

Diego Rossi also had a goal and an assist, while Mark-Anthony Kaye continued his strong season with an assist to ex-Fiorentina prospect Joshua Perez. It’s a first MLS goal for the California-born Perez, now 21.

WATCH: Rooney sees red for forearm shiver, Kamara scores golazo

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Midweek MLS provided plenty to talk about on Wednesday, with two red cards and a golazo in one match alone.

The two main talking points from the New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over DC United weren’t really part of what led the victors to three points.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

How? Well, one of the world’s marquee names earned a red card via VAR and a returning star scores an absolute stunner, that’s how.

Here’s Ola Kamara’s debut marker for the Black-and-Red, adding to a record which included 49 goals in 97 matches between Columbus and the LA Galaxy before moving to the Chinese Super League for a wildly disappointing time with Shenzhen FC.

All of that is forgotten.

As for the Rooney incident, the Red Bulls already led 1-0 when DC’s star striker went forearm shiver on Cristian Casseres Jr.

It’s the second red of the season for Rooney, who is set for Derby County in January.

Amro Tarek was later sent off for the Red Bulls, who moved ahead of DC in the standings. Kaku and Daniel Royer had RBNY’s goals.

Newcastle takeover could be back on if in holiday relegation battle

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How much do Newcastle United supporters dislike their owner Mike Ashley right now?

Enough that this report is likely to condemn many to hoping their favorite club in the world is in the Bottom 3 come Christmas.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

The Chronicle’s Mark Douglas speculates that Ashley will lower his asking price for the club if it is in a relegation fight come December — something that looks certain after the Steve Bruce-led Magpies got bossed around by promoted Norwich City.

Nothing But Newcastle transcribed Douglas’ chatter from his podcast, in which he says,

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we hear more in December because there are still people sniffing around that football club and if the team are in the bottom three, there’ll be people thinking they can get a bargain out of Mike Ashley again. … He will probably more open to listening to lower offers in January and December which is what happened last December. He was basically saying ‘take it off my hands, you now have to take the risk’'”

This is notable for two reasons. First: the social experiment of wondering how many fans could see themselves rooting for their team to take a major and perilous back step just to see the back of a man they perceive is at the root of their failures (and that perception is widespread in this case).

But second, we can see if this rumor comes true because it’s difficult to imagine Newcastle as comfortably mid table by Christmas.

Fan protests and anger are nothing new, but here’s an effort to show how wobbly Ashley’s reputation is on Tyneside: Fans have taken to selling a black and white striped shirt with player name and number but no sponsor just so they can have a Newcastle jersey that doesn’t put money into Ashley’s pockets. And this is after he broke the club’s transfer record twice in one year.

If we’ve learned anything from the past few seasons, though, it’s that boycotts and anger will spur Ashley into insisting that he’s willing to sell and just conveniently enough it will be before the January transfer window. He “won’t be able to buy any players” with the takeover in play, and talks will hit a wall come late January, when they’ll loan a couple young players from Top Six sides.

Yes he spent significant money on Joelinton, Allen Saint-Maximin, and others this summer, but one decent window doesn’t make a culture. Count us amongst the skeptical, for now.

Messi back in training, could be fit for Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi was back in full training again on Wednesday and may be fit to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Messi had been training separately from the squad since injuring his right calf in the preseason.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener on Friday.

Barcelona has not said how long it expects Messi to be sidelined.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Coach Ernesto Valverde is also dealing with injuries to forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele is certain to miss Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou because of a left thigh injury that should keep him out for about five weeks.

Suarez also isn’t likely to play this weekend because of a muscle injury sustained before halftime of Friday’s game in Bilbao.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona hadn’t loss a league opener in 10 seasons.

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