Landon Donovan talks El Tri support, USMNT and more

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For hardcore U.S. Men’s National Team supporters, it is still difficult to comprehend the concept of their boys missing out on the World Cup, but that reality has officially set in with the start of the competition in Russia.

[ MORE: What will hosting 2026 World Cup mean for USA? ]

It is that failure though that has prompted several former USMNT greats like Alexi Lalas, and more recently, Landon Donovan, to call on Americans to support Mexico and CONCACAF nations Costa Rica and Panama as they begin their journey on the world’s biggest stage.

Again, it’s probably hard to wrap your mind around if you’re an avid USMNT supporter.

Mexico — who is and has been thought of for decades as the U.S.’ greatest foe — couldn’t possibly be uttered in a positive way by USMNT fans. Or could they?

Donovan, who currently plays for Liga MX side Club Leon, has partnered with Mexican beer company Modelo, along with former Chicago Cubs catcher David Ross, to shed some light on breaking curses.

Courtesy of Modelo

In the case of the Cubs, Ross and his teammates ended a 108-year World Series drought, while Mexico is hoping to break a rough streak of its own in Russia as El Tri aims to advance past the Round of 16.

El Tri has failed to reach the quarterfinals in each of the last six World Cups appearances, with their last final eight appearance coming in 1986 — when Mexico hosted the World Cup.

Pro Soccer Talk recently spoke with Donovan in an exclusive interview about a wide array of subjects, including his newfound affection for Mexico, the future of the USMNT, World Cup 2018 and much more.


Matt Reed: Was there anything in particular that changed your perception of Mexico? Because I’d have to imagine you’ve gotten a decent amount of backlash given your ties to the USMNT and what you’ve meant not just to them but how heavily you were involved in the USA-Mexico rivalry.

Landon Donovan: Any time you have the opportunity to actually see things firsthand, and meet people face to face and immerse yourself in their culture, I think you’re going to become more sympathetic. You’re going to have more respect. The only Mexico I had known was being in a stadium of 100,000 people booing me. I didn’t know any other Mexico. Having the chance to be around these people and make friends there has really given me a new appreciation for everyone.

MRThe intentions are obviously good. But simply put, why should Americans root for Mexico at the World Cup given the massive rivalry between the two countries? 

LD: I see the world a little bit different. We’ve got enough hatred and divisiveness and nastiness in the world right now. I don’t believe that’s sustainable or frankly enjoyable to be around. In the big picture, forget that I just spent four months of my life in Mexico, if Mexico and Costa Rica and Panama do well at the World Cup that bodes well for us. That helps CONCACAF in the end. And conversely, iff they go out and bomb out in the first round and don’t advance, what does that say about us? What does that say about the fact that we couldn’t even qualify? I think if you take a little bit of that emotion out of it and look at it objectively, you can at least have a bit of an appreciation for wanting to see Mexico and these other teams do well.

MR: What do you see from this current Mexican side, and ultimately how far can they advance in Russia? Again, this is a classic situation of a talented squad underperforming in the lead up to the World Cup.

LD: I think from a talent standpoint they are a quarterfinal(-ish) type team. It’s interesting because when I talked to David Ross about this he had an interesting comment about the Cubs and how their 2016 season played out. He said, “On paper we’re as talented as any team in the league, but talent only gets you so far. We had a fighting spirit and belief in our group that we were going to be the team to break the curse.” They were being hounded every day about the fact that they weren’t going to do it, so when I think about this Mexico team they have to get in a room together and say maybe we’re not the best of friends. Maybe we don’t see everything eye to eye, but if we want to be a special team we’ve got to be something different. Because getting to the quarterfinals would immortalize this group. They’ve got to be willing to lay it all on the line to get there. It has nothing to do with their talent. They have plenty of that.

MR: We’ve all had a lot of time to dissect and mourn the USMNT failing to qualify for Russia. You can probably name one of a million reasons why that’s the case, but can you pinpoint an area that proved to be their downfall?

LD: I think what happened was that on the surface everything seemed fine and dandy. We got out of our group in 2014 and took Belgium to extra time. Everything seemed fine, but under the surface there were a lot of red flags. People, including myself, overlooked that. We didn’t see that there were real systemic issues going on. We paid the ultimate price of not going to the World Cup because of it, which has haunted all of us. The question as to what went wrong. There are a number of things, but I just think eventually not doing things the right way caught up with us.

MR: Do you believe not qualifying was a blessing and a curse for the U.S.? This, of course, is assuming that the program learns from its mistake and addresses the issues that set them back.

LD: No question. The only saving grace in a situation like this is if you learn from your mistakes and get better. Otherwise it’s only going to get worse. I think of the things that have happened in my life, some of the bad ones, which have fortunately not been many. If I was able to look back on it and better myself then I can say I’m glad that happened. Until I get to that place though, there’s really no benefit. That said, it doesn’t mean the USMNT needs to throw everything out. We absolutely needed to peel back the layers though, and address where we went wrong. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made so far.

MR: Just speaking about unity, and the relationship you’re aiming to help build between the U.S. and Mexico. The United Bid received the rights to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first time three nations have co-hosted a tournament of this magnitude. What’s the overall importance of hosting again, and even more so doing it with our neighbors to the north and south?

LD: Let’s just put aside the soccer aspect for a second. From a political and global perspective this shows the rest of the world that we have three massive countries coming together to do something really great. Especially amidst our political climate and some of our leaders and their feelings towards our southern neighbors, I just think it’s a massive message of positivity and unity when we desperately need it. I’m really proud of the efforts that everyone involved put in to achieve this and I think it’s big for society as a whole.

MR: June 23, 2010. Does that date ring a bell? In all seriousness though, how often do you still think about the Algeria game and that last-minute goal? 

LD: It honestly does because like you said it’s what people remember. It’s the strongest emotional moment on the biggest stage. It’s one thing if intellectually something like that happens. You don’t always relate to it. But when something emotional like that happens to you I think it sticks with you forever. It’s just this profound moment in a lot of fans’ soccer lives. For many, it’s when they became soccer fans or really connected with soccer for the first time. It’s just a moment etched in everyone’s memory, and I love talking to people about it because it’s so much bigger than just what I did.

MR: I’d be remiss if I didn’t get your final thoughts on the World Cup. Who wins it all and why?

LD: I think in the end Germany is the logical choice. I do think from a talent standpoint France and Belgium are super talented if they can find a way to become a team. And then oddly every World Cup in my lifetime has had people talking about Brazil. I really don’t hear many people talking about them, which I think is crazy. In some weird way, maybe that will be good for them to fly under the radar a little. There’s no drama. They can just go about their business.

PL Sunday Preview: Leicester travel to Burnley; Liverpool put perfect record on the line against Man Utd

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With eight Premier League fixtures on Saturday, two more remain in Matchweek 23.

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Burnley v. Leicester City  — 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Burnley are free falling and there doesn’t seem to be a safety net in sight.

The Clarets, who are two points removed from the relegation zone, head into a tough three-match window without striker Ashley Barnes. Recuperating from a hernia surgery, the 30-year-old is set to miss bouts against Leicester, Manchester United and Arsenal – to name some.

But quite possibly more alarming than that is the team’s recent form. Losing seven out of their last nine, just two points divide Burnley from the drop zone. Sean Dyche‘s team are clueless in the box, scoring one goal in four league bouts. Trouble looms over Turf Moor.

But even then, Dyche, who has made Burnley a force to be reckoned with in the past, believes his side are still a threat.

“They are a good side,” Dyche said about Leicester. “We are on a tough run of form, but I don’t think they are naive enough to think it is turn up and get the business done. We are not a million miles away.”

Can Burnley pull a Southampton and stun a top-four bound Leicester?

“We weren’t at our best [against Southampton] and we didn’t have the energy and intensity that we would have liked,” Brendan Rodgers said ahead of Sunday’s early match.

“We work twice as hard and that’s what we’ve done after every setback. We still have a lot to improve on.”

The Foxes had a rare full week to train, so one can bet that Rodgers is serious about his word.

INJURIES: Burnley —  OUT: Barnes (hernia), Gudmundsson (hamstring) | Leicester City — OUT: Ndidi (knee), Amartey (ankle), James (match fitness)

Liverpool v. Manchester United — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Manchester United are a part of the exclusive anti-Liverpool club for more than the obvious reason.

Yes, the North West Derby is one of the league’s most heated rivalries, with countless flashbacks in its 203 meetings during its over 100 years of history.

But these two, star-studded squads led by Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, respectively, also have a permeating rivalry of their own. The Reds, who have yet to taste defeat this season, have dropped points to only United.

It can be argued that Sunday’s bout may be Liverpool’s most complicated and least favorable, despite maintaining an immaculate record at home. This is the “big one” that many didn’t particularly circle on the calendar.

“It’s a very, very important football game,” Klopp said. “Very important. We have to learn how to deal with games like this in the right manner. We haven’t done bad in the past but we can still improve.

“Old Trafford [a 1-1 draw in October] was a good example, [we were] not at our best because of their quality. We have to make it more likely we’re at our best.”

Solskjaer had his tactics in place last time around; a small injection of final quality and the team would have crushed Liverpool’s aspirations of matching the Iinvincibles or Manchester City’s points record.

“The last two performances [against Liverpool] at Old Trafford we have drawn twice and been close to winning both games, so we’ve got some games to look back at and that will give us loads of belief… if we perform to our best we have a chance to win,” Solskjaer said.

Sunday presents itself as the final chance for United to pull the upset, and reaffirm why they’re a part of the exclusive club to begin with. But Liverpool are slowing becoming invincible themselves.

INJURIES: Liverpool —  OUT: Lovren (hamstring), Clyne (knee), Keïta (groin), Milner (hamstring) | Manchester United  — OUT: Tuanzebe (hamstring), McTominay (knee), Pogba (ankle)

Serie A roundup: Immobile nets hat-trick, Lazio runs over Sampdoria (video)

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Lazio’s record-extending 11th straight Serie A win highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 5-1 Sampdoria  

Like Lazio’s season, Ciro Immobile continues to make strides with each passing day.

The 29-year-old’s hat-trick powered Simone Inzaghi’s side past Sampdoria 5-1, extending his goal count to 23, nine more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaka.

 

Lazio, who are three points behind top-of-the-table Juventus and one behind second-place Inter Milan, were up three goals by the 20-minute mark. By the 65th minute, Immobile reached the three goal mark, converting from the spot.

“We would need too much time to count his records,” coach Simone Inzaghi said on Immobile’s magnificent run of form. “We are talking about an extraordinary team player. He has shown that so many times. Immobile has been doing extraordinary things for four years, I’m not surprised.”

Full of confidence, Lazio turn one of the most challenging corners of the season, as they take on rivals AS Roma defend the Italian Cup against Napoli.

“We’ll enjoy this 11th win but we have to already be thinking about the next matches,” Inzaghi said. “We know what a derby means but I can’t allow myself to think about Roma.

“We play Napoli on Tuesday, we know what the Italian Cup means for us, what it meant last year, we have it on our shirts and we will fight for it again.”

When it comes to Sampdoria, things are going from bad to ugly, quick.

“Tonight I’ll add salt and pepper and I’ll eat them alive,” Sampdoria coach Claudio Ranieri said of his players.

“Lazio was too good for us, you could clearly see the difference between the two teams, but it was without doubt the worst Samp performance since I’ve been here.”

Elsewhere

Sassuolo 2-1 Torino

Napoli 0-2 Fiorentina

La Liga roundup: Casemiro’s brace earns injury-riddled Real Madrid win (video)

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Casemiro’s heroic performance against Sevilla highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Real Madrid 2-1 Sevilla

Real Madrid’s goalscoring hero on Saturday wasn’t Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, or even Sergio Ramos.

With two crucial goals in the second half, Casemiro single-handedly earned three points at the Santiago Bernabeu, days removed from cathartic Spanish Super Cup win against arch rivals Atletico Madrid.

With Bale, Hazard, Ramos injured, Benzema on the bench far from match-fit, and Federico Valverde suspended, Los Blancos were in dire need of someone to lead the way, and place pressure on struggling co-leaders Barcelona, who are now under Quique Setien’s tutelage.

By the time the first 45 minutes came to a close, the overall impression was that it would take a miracle for the home side to earn much-needed three points.

That all quickly changed in the second half as the Brazilian midfielder chipped Tomas Vaclik after a picture-perfect backheel from Luka Jovic. Madrid were edging Julen Lopetegui’s side, and Casemiro foreshadowed what was to come.

With the score level, the Brazilian leaped inside the box and headed home a lofting ball from the right flank, catching Sevilla’s defense completely off guard.

Casemiro’s brace came just five minutes after Luuk De Jong‘s left-footed goal in the 64th minute.

League leaders with 43 points, Madrid prepares for their Copa del Rey bout against third-division side Unionistas midweek. Sevilla, on the other hand, host Levante in the same tournament.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Eibar 2-0 Atletico Madrid

Osasuna 0-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-1 Alaves

16-year-old Cherki scores 2 as Lyon advances in French Cup

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PARIS (AP) Two goals and two assists from 16-year-old forward Rayan Cherki helped Lyon win 4-3 at Nantes and reach the last 16 of the French Cup on Saturday.

But the run of Reunion Islanders JS Saint-Pierroise ended with a 1-0 loss away to Epinal, which scored deep into extra time.

Cherki put Lyon ahead in the first minute, deftly rounding goalkeeper Alban Lafont and then clipping the ball beyond a defender. He made it 2-0 in the ninth, slotting the ball through Lafont’s legs after being set up by right winger Bertrand Traore.

New signing Renaud Emond headed in Moses Simon’s cross from the left to pull a goal back for Nantes in the 16th. Cherki then showed great awareness to release forward Martin Terrier with a fine pass from midfield in the 37th for 3-1.

Cherki shaved the crossbar with a shot in the 60th and won a penalty in the 67th after robbing the ball off Thomas Basila. He generously allowed striker Moussa Dembele to take it, but Lafont saved Dembele’s attempt.

Two minuter later, Cherki threaded the ball down the right to Dembele, who slotted in, and the irrepressible Cherki set up another chance for Terrier.

Lyon’s defense remains vulnerable and Simon set up Imran Louza’s goal before heading in late on to ensure a tense finish.

Saint-Pierroise had caused an upset in the previous round by knocking out second-division Niort and the players again traveled 6,000 miles (around 9,700 kilometers) from the small island in the Indian Ocean, located off the east coast of Africa.

Saint-Pierroise, the former club of France midfielder Dimitri Payet, was looking to become the first club from the Reunion Islands to reach the last 16 and almost forced a penalty shootout, despite having forward Jean-Michel Fontaine sent off in the 15th minute.

But substitute Adel Berkane rifled home a half-volley for fourth-tier Epinal with two minutes left in extra time.

Also, there were wins for first-division sides Nice, Lille, Saint-Etienne and Strasbourg.

Lille won 2-0 at fifth-division Gonfreville thanks to goals from forwards Loic Remy and Victor Osimhen, while coach Patrick Vieira’s Nice side held on to beat third-tier Red Star 2-1.

Saint-Etienne won 3-2 at Paris FC, a team fighting relegation in the second division.

Paris FC led 2-1 with goals from former Paris Saint-Germain forward Jeremy Menez and ex-Rennes winger Jonathan Pitroipa. Teen forward Charles Abi equalized for Saint-Etienne with 20 minutes left before veteran right back Mathieu Debuchy netted the winner.

Strasbourg won 5-1 at fourth-tier Angouleme.

On Sunday, Rennes plays at fifth-tier Athletico Marseille and PSG travels to face second division league leader Lorient.

Rennes beats PSG in last year’s final.

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