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Venting and lamenting the USMNT’s World Cup absence

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Maybe it’s the fact that the night’s already surreal, with the American and North Korean leaders holding a historic meeting and the common bond being a 57-year-old nicknamed “The Worm” who is known for being an excellent rebounder and starring in a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme, but the dawn of this summer’s World Cup feels exceptionally dreamlike.

Let’s get some things out of the way: Even with the United States men’s national team failing to make the tournament, I’m still very excited about the World Cup. I’m leaning toward hitching my wagon to Serbia’s dark horse status, but also want to be four years’ worth of correct when it comes to Germany.

I’ve also learned you can navigate the sports version of the grieving process — acceptance is tough, but the hope part is easier — and still ride pretty high on the anger and frustration part of it all.

[ MORE: Sporting Lisbon drama increases ]

Anything can happen in a World Cup. We saw that with the USMNT escaping its Group of Death in 2014 and Costa Rica doing the same, but I can’t help look at this tournament as a chance lost for both CONCACAF and the U.S.

This is subjective, and please feel free to disagree, but the domestic buzz feels minimal compared to a tournament with the United States in the field. In terms of the average sports fan, you can scream Messi or Ronaldo all you want, but the tournament is being sold here like an El Clasico with flags.

We’ve reached the point in the World Cup cycle where I worry how many kids, both fans and players, in that pivotal age bracket of 8-12 are going to potentially miss out on their formative Dos A Cero in Jeonju, or Landon Donovan versus Algeria moment.

The beauty of being a sports fan is the images and characters created by your team or nation on the biggest stages.

For Americans of my generation, we’ve seen our country in every World Cup since we were in grade school. Even tournaments where the USMNT didn’t really ring a bell, like 1994, the World Cup drew us into side stories. I remember sitting in my Uncle Jim’s living room, hoping against hope that Italy would top Brazil, and being fairly bummed when Roberto Baggio sent his effort over the bar

I also often feel compelled to point out that Baggio was the third Italian to miss, and that Italy goes out in the Round of 16 if he doesn’t equalize in the 88th minute and complete his brace against Nigeria in extra time, then scoring the winner against Spain in the quarters, and both goals against Bulgaria in the semis.

And here’s the thing: I barely cared about soccer in 1994. I didn’t start playing until high school, and didn’t fall in love with the USMNT program until qualifying for the 2002 tournament.

There’s a vivid American memory from every World Cup after ’94 for me, often in the form of a question.

1998: “Did we really just lose to Iran?”

2002: “How did the ref miss that %^&%^& handball on Frings?”

2006: “Brian McBride is really bloody”

2010: “AND DONOVAN’S SCORED, OH CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?”

2014:

2018 is gonna be anger and disbelief, a generation deprived of its World Cup from perhaps the easiest qualification format by a defiant coach, his haughty replacement, and a group of players who showed enough effort to get the job done on average once every other game.

Frankly, this probably sounds absurd to some European and South American nations considering some of the World Cup droughts, some still active. Ryan Giggs never played in one. Alfredo Di Stefano, George Weah, and Ian Rush were shut out. Even in the expanded format, current big names like Darren Fletcher, Arda Turan, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Christian Pulisic missed his first World Cup? Boo-hoo, say Austria and Wales. David Alaba will be 28 the next time he gets to attempt qualification for his first. Gareth Bale will be 31 and Aaron Ramsey 30.

Robbie Keane got one World Cup. Marcus Hahnemann went to two.

So, yeah, American soccer fans have had it pretty good. I don’t want this to read like, “my tap water in Western New York could be better” when in reality I’d welcome a full-time job of delivering fresh water to the half-globe or more where it is needed by real, true human beings (including Michigan). Rooting for Serbia because the U.S. or Wakanda didn’t qualify is an acceptable enough outcome.

The 2026 World Cup could be coming back to the United States for the second time in 32 years despite this country still just figuring out the sport’s allure. We’re fortunate in so many ways. And, frankly, there’s a very good argument to be made that the country’s federation could use the second swift kick that would come from failing to make a World Cup then blowing a World Cup hosting bid despite overwhelming stores of influence and money.

But for now, all I can think about is what we won’t have this weekend. Very few, if any, city blocks shut down for outdoor viewing party. A similar amount of beer-soaked phone videos of bar celebrations. No John Brooks canceling out Andre Ayew’s late equalizer. No Jermaine Jones rocket against Portugal. Not even a hope-giving moment from substitute Julian Green versus Belgium (Silly dual nationals).

Don’t forget: Some said dual nationals like John Brooks didn’t “care” enough (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images).

No first World Cup for Pulisic. Maybe no World Cup ever for Eric Lichaj, Bobby Wood, Tim Ream, Danny Williams, and Darlington Nagbe.

I mean, shoot, at least when the USWNT took its step back it was just a missed medal at the Olympics, not an entire month of sadness.

The whys are myriad: A national program that got high on its own FIFA rankings supply. A divide between proponents of players playing at the highest level and those who refused to push players there because of the money it made them or their domestic clubs. No one knows if Matt Besler would’ve become the best defender in USMNT history with a move to West Ham — and we do love him for his one-club heart — but there sure is some “What if?” there.

But it’s not about the whys here. It’s about the “What ifs?”

What if the U.S. was drawn in Panama’s place, needing to get past Belgium or England, let alone Tunisia, to make another knockout round? I’m genuinely happy for Panama, even with their ghost goal being the difference, but CONCACAF would likely rather see the Yanks’ buttressing their World Cup host bid with Pulisic as poster boy.

What if the U.S. was drawn in Mexico’s place, a veritable Group of Death for Arena and his proponents to measure himself against Klinsmann and his?

Or what about Costa Rica’s spot, with Neymar’s Brazil joining underachieving Switzerland and dark horse Serbia on the docket?

What if that kid who’s choosing whether to dedicate himself to high school football, basketball, lacrosse, or soccer, doesn’t bother to get misty-eyed for the red, white, and blue because he’s going to opt to go to the Orioles because Croatia-Argentina doesn’t have any significance to him?

$%^$.

Champions League score predictions: Round of 16

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The 2019-20 UEFA Champions League is finally back as the Round of 16 kicks off this week and two of the four Premier League clubs are in action.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, the two finalists from last season, are first up and both will be happy enough with their draws in the last 16.

That said, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool know that Diego Simeone’s Atleti are a very dangerous team to play as they will scrap and battle for every ball against the reigning European champions. As for Spurs and Jose Mourinho, the news that Heung-min Son has broken his arm and could be out for the rest of the season is a huge blow but they host an inconsistent RB Leipzig.

Borussia Dortmund host Paris Saint-Germain and Atalanta host Valencia in the other last 16 ties this week and both should be cracking encounters between two very evenly-matched teams.

[ MORE: Which Premier League team(s) will reach last eight? ]

Next week the other four last 16 first legs take place as Man City and Chelsea are in action against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively. Out of the four Premier League teams still in the competition, Liverpool and Spurs will be the most confident of advancing.

Below we predict the scores for the UCL round of 16 games taking place over the next two days. Feel free to make your own predictions in the comments section below, too.


Tuesday
Atletico Madrid 1-2 Liverpool
Borussia Dortmund 3-2 PSG

Wednesday
Tottenham Hotspur 2-2 RB Leipzig
Atalanta 2-1 Valencia

Lampard issues Chelsea injury update; Pulisic remains out

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Chelsea boss Frank Lampard issued a lengthy injury update after their 2-0 defeat against Man United and USMNT fans will not be happy to hear that Christian Pulisic remains out.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Ahead of Chelsea’s pivotal top four clash at home against bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Lampard could be without as many as five key players.

Andreas Christensen broke his nose and came off at half time against United, while N’Golo Kante was subbed off early after yet another leg injury for the French superstar.

“Callum, no. Pulisic, no. N’Golo, no, from that today. Tammy is a maybe. It is not going our way with injuries at the moment but the players who come in they have to show that. That is what the squad is there for. It is frustrating,” Lampard told Chelsea TV when asked about availability for Saturday.

Lampard then gave an extra update on Kante, who walked through the mixed zone after the game looking okay and told the French journalists who were assembled that it wasn’t too bad.

“It is an adductor injury,” Lampard confirmed. “We will have to assess it and scan it. It doesn’t look great. It is on the same leg [as he injured before].”

With four wins in their last 14 Premier League games Chelsea are not in good form and are just one point ahead of fifth-place Tottenham ahead of their game this weekend.

They also have a nasty habit of dominating matches but are failing to put multiple chances away and with these injuries piling up it certainly makes Chelsea’s decision to not spend in the January window to strengthen their squad, especially in terms of strikers, very surprising.

With Bayern Munich coming up in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last 16 tie next week, Lampard will hope Chelsea’s luck turns and plenty of players return from injury.

FC Cincinnati coach Jans resigns amid investigation over remarks

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CINCINNATI — FC Cincinnati coach Ron Jans resigned amid an investigation by Major League Soccer of his use of a racial slur in the locker room.

Jans resigned late Monday, FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding said: “The club had suspended Jans pending the investigation, which was prompted by a complaint from the MLS Players Association.

“As Major League Soccer’s investigation unfolded and some themes emerged, Ron offered his resignation and we agreed that it was the best course of action for everyone involved with FC Cincinnati,” Berding said.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The club designated Yoann Damet as interim head coach while the team conducts a search. Cincinnati is training in Florida for its second season in MLS.

Cincinnati has been through two head coaches during its brief stay in the league. It fired Alan Koch after its 11th first-tier match, which left the expansion club with two wins, seven losses and two draws.

Damet also was the interim head coach while the team conducted a search that resulted in Jans’ hiring last August.

Cincinnati finished with the worst record in MLS in its inaugural season, with six wins, six draws and 22 losses. It scored a league-low 31 goals in 34 matches.

Cincinnati gained entry into MLS after a successful debut under Koch, who led the team to the semifinals of the United Soccer League’s playoffs in both 2017 and 2018.

German fans turn on fellow supporter for racist abuse

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BERLIN — The fans of German soccer club Preußen Münster showed how racist abuse can be handled, shouting “Nazis out! Nazis out!” after one of their own fans targeted a visiting player with monkey chants.

The perpetrator was a 29-year-old man who was forced out of the stadium. And the player, Würzburger Kickers defender Leroy Kwadwo, thanked the opposing fans their “exemplary” reaction.

“I was racially abused by one single spectator. It just makes me sad,” Kwadwo wrote on Saturday, a day after the match. “I indeed have a different skin color, but I was born here in this wonderful land that has given my family and I so much and made so much possible. I am one of you. I live here and can live my calling as a professional with the Würzburger Kickers.

“Something like yesterday just makes me sad and angry because everyone has to know, racism does not belong in OUR world. We all have the opportunity to oppose it and stop it if it happens.”

The incident occurred during a third-division match in Münster.

On Monday, Münster said it would seek to ban the suspect from all German stadiums for three years, the toughest possible sanction permitted under current regulations.

“The least we an do is ensure that this person is no longer allowed in our stadium,” Münster president Christoph Strässer said. “We will not tolerate racism or any form of discrimination. The issue of integration is naturally important to us as a sports club, and Article 1 of the constitution applies primarily, namely: Human dignity is sacrosanct. That goes for everyone in this country.”

The perpetrator also faces legal consequences. Local police said the man would be charged with incitement, which can lead to financial penalties and a jail term of three months to five years if convicted.

Referee Katrin Rafalski stopped the 0-0 draw in the 88th minute after being informed of the racist abuse by Kwadwo. It was followed by a stadium announcement against the abuse and the “Nazis out!” chants from the fans.

The German soccer federation praised the fans’ reaction on Twitter on Saturday.

“So sad and shameful as the racist incident against Leroy Kwadwo was, so exemplary was the immediate reaction to it,” the federation said. “The third division stands together and says, no to racism and discrimination!”

The incident occurred only days after Bundesliga club Schalke was fined 50,000 euros ($54,600) after some of its fans subjected Hertha Berlin player Jordan Torunarigha to racist abuse during a German Cup game on Feb. 4.

Torunarigha, the son of former Nigerian player Ojokojo Torunarigha, was targeted with monkey chants and was eventually sent off in extra time when he picked up a second yellow card after appearing increasingly upset as the game went on. The 22-year-old German defender was consoled by Schalke’s Amine Harit.

Numerous other racist incidents have tarnished European soccer this season.

On Sunday in Portugal, Porto striker Moussa Marega was visibly angered by monkey noises targeting him after he scored his team’s second goal in a 2-1 win at Guimarães. Several Porto and opposition players attempted to dissuade him from walking off the field in the 71st minute, when he demanded to be substituted.