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England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

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For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

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“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

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It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

Mohamed Salah injury update

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Premier League leaders Liverpool are nursing Mohamed Salah‘s left ankle injury over the international break.

It appears he is a doubt to play in their next game against Crystal Palace on Nov. 23 (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Salah, 27, will not play for Egypt over the next 10 days and he’s been playing with an ankle injury since being on the receiving end of a hefty challenge from Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury on Oct. 5.

Our partners Sky Sports in the UK say that Salah will be allowed to train away from the Liverpool squad in the next week as he continues to work his way back to full fitness.

He was seen in Cairo wearing a protective boot on his left foot as he watched the Egyptian national team train. Sky also claim that no timetable has been set for Salah’s return and it doesn’t appear that Liverpool are keen on rushing him back.

The Egyptian winger hobbled off late on in the 3-1 win against Manchester City after Fernandinho caught him with a sliding tackle, and he has been subbed off in each of their last three Premier League games (plus he missed the 1-1 draw at Man United entirely) as Jurgen Klopp has had to manage the minutes of his star winger.

Liverpool are unbeaten and top of the Premier League table with an eight-point lead over second place Leicester City, but they know they will need Salah in the long run if they’re going to secure the title this season.

He has scored nine goals in 17 appearances this season but the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have definitely been stepping up and delivering with Salah struggling a little bit with form and injuries.

The Egyptian King should take some time to sit on his throne and rest up.

Premier League to change VAR from December

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Premier League shareholders met in central London on Thursday and have agreed to tweak the way VAR is used in the PL.

Owners of all 20 PL clubs met for several hours, as they analyzed how the first few months of VAR being used in the Premier League had gone.

In a statement released by the Premier League, they confirmed that the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) is “committed to improving the consistency of decisions, speeding up processes and increasing communication to fans.”

The league added that PGMOL chief Mike Riley addressed the clubs and accepted improvement is required, with plenty of key incidents such as offside and handball decisions infuriating fans and pundits alike.

Below is a look at the key areas discussed, as small changes will come in to place starting in December.

  • Extra information will be displayed on stadium TV screens for fans. For example when “Checking Penalty” is displayed it will now say “Checking Penalty – Possible Handball.” This enhancement will be delivered in December 2019.
  • Pitch-side TV monitors will continue to be used sparingly by referees, as “ensuring the pace and tempo of Premier League football remains an important focus for clubs.” But it is expected referees will go to the TV monitors more than they have done in the opening months of the season.
  • Premier League revealed that VAR has improved the accuracy of match officials around “key match incidents” (KMI). Last season match officials achieved 82 per cent KMI accuracy. With VAR this accuracy has risen to 91 per cent this season.

Landon Donovan to manage San Diego Loyal

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Landon Donovan will become the first manager of the San Diego Loyal.

Donovan, 37, is part of the ownership group of the USL Championship side, which kicks off its inaugural season in 2020.

Speaking to Sports Illustrated, Donovan confirmed he will manage the newly-formed Southern Californian club and he will also be the VP of soccer operations for the second-tier team.

SD Loyal will hold a press conference on Thursday to officially announce Donovan’s appointment.

The MLS and USMNT legend has retired and made comebacks multiple times in recent years but his playing days are now over and he will focus on leading the USL franchise alongside Warren Smith, who previously founded Sacramento Republic FC.

Donovan has lived in San Diego in recent years and was part of the group who wanted to bring an MLS team to the city as part of a planned Soccer City complex. After that bid failed, Donovan instead put all of his energy into the USL side and he will now be the leading man on the sidelines.

His name has plenty of pull and along with the team calling San Diego home, this team will be a very popular one to play for.

Thierry Henry named Montreal Impact manager

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Thierry Henry has been named as the new manager of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer.

Henry, 42, has signed a two-year contract to lead Montreal and has an option to extend his deal to 2022.

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Speaking about his return to MLS, this time as a manager, Henry is delighted to be heading to Quebec.

“It’s an honour to coach the Montreal Impact and return to MLS,” Henry said. “It’s a league I know well, in which I had some very nice moments. To be in Quebec, in Montreal, which has an enormous multicultural heritage, it’s extraordinary. I’ve always kept an eye on the club and now I’m here.”

Henry holds his UEFA Pro licence and his previous managerial experience includes being the assistant manager for the Belgian national team before and during the 2018 World Cup and then a brief stint at his former club Monaco.

The latter didn’t go well, with Henry fired less than four months into the job and with Monaco battling relegation in Ligue 1.

Henry has also worked as a TV pundit for Sky Sports in the UK after he called time on his legendary playing career with Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona and the New York Red Bulls.

But coaching has always been his plan, and now the World Cup winner has the chance, just like his former Arsenal and France teammate Patrick Vieira, to stamp his identity on an MLS club.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the legendary French striker gets on as a head coach in MLS, but at least he knows from his playing days how the league operates and some of the logistical challenges that will face him and his team.

The Impact have missed the MLS playoffs in each of the past three seasons and parted ways with previous boss Wilmer Cabrera, who had taken over after Remi Garde’s tumultuous time in charge.

Players will certainly flock to Montreal to play for Henry, but given some of the reports about his time in charge of Monaco and how strict he was on the training ground, it will be interesting to see how Henry’s approach has developed, if at all.