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Tim Ream: Calm, confident, on to Wembley

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“Yes. Simple answer, yes.”

With a match at Wembley on the horizon, Tim Ream is in the form of his life – he knows it, and he isn’t afraid to admit it. The 30-year-old American defender is just now reaching his peak, in stunning form at Fulham.

“I’ve played 46 games now [this season], and the performances and form that I’ve been on – not just from the start of the undefeated run, but going back to the beginning of the year,” Ream told NBC Soccer, “I don’t think there’s anybody that can question the level that I’ve been playing at and question whether it’s the best in my career, because it is without a doubt.”

Ream, in his third season at Fulham and second under manager Slavisa Jokanovic, isn’t really sure why his form is peaking now, but he’s not complaining. “It’s funny because I’ve not changed as a player. I’m no different than I was five years ago to now. I’ve probably honed my positioning sense a little bit more, but that’s always been one of my strengths.”

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann believes U.S. could have made World Cup semifinals ]

Fulham’s not complaining either. The unbeaten streak he referenced earlier was a 23-match Championship run that spanned from late December through the penultimate game of the season. It is easily the longest unbeaten run in Fulham history, and it surpassed Manchester City’s 22-match streak to start the year as the longest in English professional soccer this season.

Tim Ream has been in stellar form all season for Fulham, helping them earn a spot in the Championship Playoff final (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

All that has Fulham in position to make a return to the Premier League for the first time since relegation in 2014, and Ream has been at the heart of it all. The St. Louis product has been Fulham’s most consistent player this season, owning the second-most minutes played on the squad this season behind only 17-year-old phenom Ryan Sessegnon.

The year Ream arrived at Craven Cottage, Fulham conceded an enormous 79 goals, two off the most in the Championship that season. Since, they have buttoned up more the back each campaign, conceding 57 goals in 2016/17 followed by just 46 this year. Ream believes that his ability to execute the beautiful, possession-based style under Jokanovic has led to not just team success, but also his own personal improvement. “The system helps – the style that we play – it helps. When you’re in a system and you play a style that we do, that’s already a strong point of my game, naturally you’re going to play better.”

Fulham owns 55% possession of the ball this season – the tops in the Championship – out-passing every single team in the league by nearly 4,000 completed passes, while completing them at a league-high 83% success rate. Given that, Ream has not only been the lynchpin of the Fulham’s defensive efforts, he is also vital to the club building from the back. The American has the 3rd-most completed passes in the entire Championship, bested only by Fulham’s own midfield partnership in Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen.

[ MORE: PST’s Premier League Best XI for the 2017/18 season ]

“Everybody [in the squad] knows what we’re doing,” Ream said, “and we all know where we need to be, and we know where the guy next to us is going to be, where the guy in front of us is…and you’re almost playing on instincts. You know you can put a ball into an area and there is going to be a guy there. It makes the players look very good.

“Players would be lying to you if they said they didn’t want to play in the system we play. We like to possess the ball, and we do it in the right areas, but at the same time we do it from back to front and front to back, and we don’t hide that.”

It wasn’t always like this. Last season, the team finished sixth in the Championship table, but seemed to sputter in big moments and at times struggled to break down more defensive opponents who were comfortable sitting back and absorbing pressure. Even at the beginning of this season, the club was missing a cutting edge, ultimately leaving themselves a big enough hole that even a 23-match unbeaten streak couldn’t pull them completely out of. Jokanovic has taken his time to let the system take hold, and it finally appears to be taking off.

“The Sunderland result when we lost at their place in December was a real eye opener for us. They hadn’t won at home in over a year and we go there and lose 1-0. If I had to point to anything, that was the catalyst for the turnaround because we were so embarrassed and so angry at ourselves because we knew we were a better squad than we were showing. From there, it was kind of just an upward rise from then on. We went and beat Cardiff on Boxing Day and just kept the confidence rolling and were performing very well, and the rest is history.”

With Ream in such good form at 30 years old, it stings a bit that he isn’t able to earn a spot on United States World Cup roster. But he also has a glass-half-full view of his current national team situation. “Obviously it’s a disappointment, but on the other hand, you look at it…would I have been worried about whether I was going to make it or not, whether I was going to be in the squad? Would that have played in my mind? Would I have started putting extra pressure on myself and started to kind of go off the rails with my club? You just don’t know.

“It’s obviously disappointing that I’m on the form that I am and there’s no World Cup, there’s no doubt about that. But you just never know. There’s so many variables.”

At age 30, however, his national team story isn’t over just yet. Ream confirmed he has spoken with interim national team manager Dave Sarachan as recently as within the last three weeks, and is leaving the rest to fate. “At the end of the day it’s not up to me. I can only do what I’m doing here, which is play on a weekly basis and play well, and if that gets me called in then that gets me called in.

Tim Ream played a bit role in the USMNT’s failed 2018 World Cup qualifying bid, but hopes to get more opportunities in the future.

“Do I think I could help [the national team]? Yeah of course. Do I think I could help some of the younger players? Absolutely. But at the end of the day that’s not my decision to make.”

Ream isn’t really focused on all that right now though, because his job at Fulham this season isn’t done. Not just yet. The team still has “the hundred million dollar game” to play, matching up with Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium on May 26 in the Championship Playoff final. Everything could be undone with a loss.

“I don’t think it’s really set in with all the guys here what it means to play there, what it means to the club, to the fans, to everyone associated with Fulham,” Ream said. “It’ll be a special occasion and we have to go out there and prove that we’re worthy.”

Cup finals are different from regular season games, and Ream’s ready to take the form he has built up this season and put it to good use. He knows his team will need him at the back, now more than ever.

“You kind of have to approach the beginning of the game a little differently. I think it’ll be a cagey first 20 minutes, kind of feeling each other out. The game’s probably not going to open up until probably 30 minutes and even moreso in the second half. Listen…you go out there and you don’t play to not lose, you play to win, so we can’t just sit back and hope for the best. We have to go and do what we’ve been doing the second part of this season, and hopefully that puts us in a good position.”

That big game could have big implications not just for Fulham but Ream as well moving forward, and he’s excited. “It’s amazing what confidence can do, and a manager who has confidence in his players and tells them to go out and pass the ball and possess the ball without any fear of making mistakes…you can’t overstate that at all.”

Petr Cech earns win with 2 penalty saves in hockey debut

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Former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper joined English fourth-division hockey team Guildford Phoenix four days ago and made his debut on Sunday.

He did not disappoint.

The 37-year-old saved two penalties in the shootout, earning Man of the Match honors.

Cech is reportedly a fan of the Guilford Flames, the first-division side who use the Phoenix as their developmental side. He was signed to be the team’s third-choice goalkeeper, just a chance for him to get in on the action before his body gives way for good, but he was given a chance to play right away. He wore number 39, a nod to famous Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek. His custom helmet was adorned with Arsenal and Chelsea colors. Regulation finished level at 2-2 before Cech’s shootout heroics.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said after the match. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”

Giroud upset with reserve role at Chelsea

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Olivier Giroud does not look back on his transfer to Chelsea and wish he had done things differently, but that doesn’t mean things are all sunshine and roses for the 33-year-old.

Giroud, who moved to Chelsea from Arsenal in the winter of 2018 after six years with the Gunners, has played just 43 times in the Premier League, averaging just 35 minutes per appearance. That has him frustrated, hoping to prove his loyalty to the club and work harder than the other options up front.

“I had competitors in attack – [Alvaro] Morata, [Gonzalo] Higuain, who ended up leaving,” Giroud said. “I won at the end: I played the final of the FA Cup in 2018 and the [Europa League] final in 2019. Once again, I’m starting the year in a difficult situation. But as my brother says, I have always built myself in the face of adversity.”

Girou is trying to be smart about how he approaches the competition for time with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi, but he says it is emotionally taxing.

“You do not have to be fatalistic in certain situations,” Giroud says about keeping a level head. “I have always been respectful and humble. Even if I do not agree with the coach, I do not criticize him. But in myself, I cannot accept it because I know what I’m worth on a pitch.”

The French international has made just three league appearances this season, mostly thanks to Abraham’s scalding form. Abraham, still just 22 years old, has snatched his opportunity for first-team minutes with eight goals in eight games to start the campaign. That has left Giroud on the sidelines for each of the last five league games, missing out on a spot in the matchday squad altogether for the last three.

Despite his struggles at the club level, Giroud has maintained his place in the French national team, missing just five matches of France’s last 64 games, including 37 of the last 39.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”