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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.

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.