After so much humiliation, England a source of pride, unity

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SAMARA, Russia (AP) — So often the source of letdowns and embarrassments, England’s soccer team is a unifying force among players and the nation.

At least in some sections of the country riven by economic, political and social divisions that led to Brexit, reaching the World Cup semifinals is a welcome distraction from the charged atmosphere. It’s a chance to clamber onto traffic lights, fling beer in the air and toast the success of the footballers in an outpouring of delirium not witnessed across England since the last century.

For the first time since the 1990s, England is in the last four of a major tournament. England will play Croatia on Wednesday for a place in the final after beating Sweden 2-0 Saturday.

“The chance to connect everybody through football and to make a difference to how people feel,” England coach Gareth Southgate said, “that is even more powerful than what we are doing with our results. That is very special. I would imagine there is a big party at home. Not for us.”

There is still much work to do if England is to reach its first World Cup final since lifting the trophy on home soil at Wembley in 1966.

But Southgate believes he has instilled the humble mentality in the dressing room that is required to keep the journey going all the way to Luzhniki Stadium next Sunday. Humility has replaced the hubris that defined the celebrity-obsessed David Beckham-era where the furthest the team reached was the quarterfinal stage of any tournament. Just look back on how Harry Maguire, who headed in Saturday’s first goal, reported for England duty for the first time last year with his clothing in a black trash bag rather than designer luggage.

Ambitions appeared to be thwarted for so long by a culture of entitlement as England gloried in the hype and status of being the birthplace of soccer without backing it up with results. And as players started to collect millions in salaries from their clubs, commitment to the national team was called into question.

“We don’t have renowned world-class players yet,” Southgate said, “but lots of good young players who are showing on the world stage that they’re prepared to be brave with the ball, try to play the right way, have shown some mental resilience now.”

At the start of his tenure in 2016, Southgate realized he had to deliver an important message to his players: Any success with England will be greater than anything achieved with their clubs.

“They have been prepared to park their club rivalries at the door,” Southgate said. “We’ve talked about how important it is to have that spirit.”

Also, how to recover from adversity. One of the lowest points for English soccer came two years ago — days after that European Union referendum in Britain — when a team coached by Roy Hodgson was humiliated by Iceland.

“Under pressure they suffered,” Southgate said. “They will have days when they are not able to cope with things.”

But experiencing the misery at Euro 2016 as players — or as a fan in the stadium like Maguire —helped a Harry Kane-led England advance relatively serenely to its first World Cup semifinal since 1990, according to Southgate. England even managed to beat Colombia in the round of 16 on penalties, halting a run of five successive shootout losses at tournaments.

The victories in Russia are also reversing an anomaly. England hosts the world’s richest soccer competition — the Premier League — but hasn’t been able to produce a national team to match. Southgate was on the last England side to reach a semifinal, at the 1996 European Championship, when the team anthem was “Three Lions.” The “football’s coming home” lyric is back in vogue in Russia, ringing out from stadiums to bars among the few thousand fans who defied the logistical challenges to follow the team.

“We have a good balance and the team are together,” 53-year-old England fan Andrew Court said outside the stadium in Samara where Maguire and Dele Alli scored the goals against Sweden.

Southgate, though, is looking beyond the hollow “Football’s coming home” concept.

Reflecting a studious approach, the platform gained from his greatest day in soccer was used to deliver several powerful messages on Saturday. Above all, Southgate wants more Englishmen playing alongside the Premier League imports.

“The more remarkable thing is that we’re in a semifinal,” Southgate said. “We only have 33 percent of the league to pick from. So that is still a huge problem for us, and we’re playing some young players who are barely established at their clubs, never mind international careers.

“But we feel that they’re able to play the way we want to play, playing huge pride, playing with no lack of quality, showing the sort of mentality to work for the group,” he said.

And it’s a group that, Southgate emphasizes, reflects the diversity of England and cuts through the economic divide in England where so much wealth is centered in the south.

Southgate has singled out the less affluent northern towns where players like Maguire are from.

“All of these players come from different parts of the country,” Southgate said, “and they’ll be youngsters watching at home from the areas that they come from. They’ll be inspiring.”

Spain revamps Super Cup (and others should follow suit)

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Ever read a tournament concept and immediately think nearly every other league should adopt it?

La Liga is taking its version of England’s Community Shield — the Spanish Super Cup — and making changes that see the league season kick off in style.

[ MORE: CONCACAF Champions League returns Tuesday ]

Normally the winners of the Copa del Rey and La Liga meeting for a piece of hardware, the Spanish federation will now hold a four-team tournament abroad.

The tournament would include the Copa del Rey finalists and the two top league finishers (obviously extending to the third and fourth place teams if needed).

Flip it on its ear and imagine that MLS was kicking off its season not with myriad friendlies and the CONCACAF Champions League, but the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup winner, MLS Cup finalists, and Supporters’ Shield winner (especially if it was mandated that the cup finalists mixed it up in the semis).

For the Community Shield, you could include the Premier League winners, League Cup winners, FA Cup winners, and either the second place team or the “reigning Community Shield winner.” The gut reaction might be to rebel against “ugh, another game,” but if it’s taking the place of a Stateside friendly between second-choice sides? Come on!

CONCACAF Champions League returns with TFC, Houston

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The CONCACAF Champions League returns Tuesday night with a pair of Major League Soccer sides seeking a positive start to their seasons after substandard 2018s.

[ FA CUP: Man Utd bounces Chelsea ]

In the case of Toronto FC, their season went downhill in a big way after CCL success driven largely by Sebastian Giovinco. He’s gone now, as is Victor Vazquez, and TFC opens its bid to return to the final with a visit to Panama’s Independiente for the front end of a two-legged tie.

The Reds are almost even money to win, according to most oddsmakers, but anything can happen on a CONCACAF pitch in February.

Having helped the USMNT start life under Gregg Berhalter following its World Cup collapse, TFC captain Michael Bradley is prepared to engineer another turnaround following his club’s playoff-free 2018. From TorontoFC.ca:

“Nobody is sitting around worried about last year anymore,” added the TFC captain. “For me, that’s been the best part of this last week or so: coming into camp, looking around and feeling right away that there was an excitement and a real motivation of the guys to get going; to work and make sure that we use every day in the right way to push ourselves forward.”

Jozy Altidore is still out for Toronto, which should give new import Terrence Boyd the chance to star in Panama.

That match kicks off at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, two hours before Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champs Houston Dynamo enter the CCL with a visit to 5,000-capacity Estadio David Cordon Hichos in Guatemala.

That’s where they’ll meet Guastatoya. We don’t know a ton about the Guatemalan side, other than they won both the Clausura and the Apertura last season.

Familiar faces return for the Dynamo in the form of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis, but there will be new talent on show. Defender Kiki Struna arrives from Palermo, while Marlon Hairston joins the Dynamo from Colorado, and could end up being a very productive player in Wilmer Cabrera’s system. Tommy McNamara also gets a new lease on life in Texas.

Klinsmann received $3.35M settlement from U.S. Soccer

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CHICAGO (AP) Jurgen Klinsmann received a $3.35 million settlement of his contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation, according to the USSF’s tax filing.

His replacement, Bruce Arena, was given a $300,000 settlement during the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2018, according to the filing, which was released Monday.

[ FA CUP: Man Utd bounces Chelsea ]

Klinsmann was hired in 2011 and in December 2013 was given a contract extension through December 2018. He was fired in November 2016 after an 0-2 start in the final round of World Cup qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean. His contract was settled for $3,354,167, the tax filing said.

Arena earned $899,348 in base pay during the fiscal year and a $50,000 bonus, according to the filing, which was first reported by The Washington Post. He quit after the U.S. loss at Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017 that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances.

Dave Sarachan, Arena’s top assistant, was the interim coach from October 2017 through last November. He had a base salary of $223,656 during the fiscal year.

Klinsmann’s top assistant, Andri Herzog, was given a settlement of $355,537 during the fiscal year. He is now Israel’s national team coach.

U.S. women’s coach Jill Ellis earned $291,029 in base pay during the fiscal year, which did not include a major tournament. He compensation was topped by under-20 men’s coach Tab Ramos, who had $295,558 in base pay plus a $30,000 bonus.

USSF CEO Dan Flynn, who has said he may be retiring, had $684,617 in base pay and $130,000 in bonuses. Chief operating officer Jay Berhalter, brother of new U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, had $466,195 in base pay and $115,563 in bonuses.

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

Champions League preview: Bayern visit Anfield; Lyon v. Barcelona

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Liverpool and Bayern Munich are set to battle for 180 minutes beginning on Tuesday, when last season’s UEFA Champions League finalists host the reigning Bundesliga champions at Anfield, and Reds boss Jurgen Klopp is as anxious as anyone to watch the drama unfold.

[ FA CUP: Paul Pogba scores, assists as Man Utd bounce Chelsea (video) ]

“It’s another one of those games I’m really happy to be involved in, and if I wasn’t involved, I would try and buy tickets,” Liverpool’s German manager said this week. “It’s a tough one against a really strong, experienced team, but we are strong as well. Only more stress [facing Bayern], because all the people wanted 600 extra interviews with German news.”

Liverpool will be fully prepared and well drilled after having no game during the most recent FA Cup weekend. By the time the referee’s whistle blows for kickoff at 3 p.m. ET, 10 days will have passed since the Reds thrashed Bournemouth in PL play.

Liverpool will definitely be without the trio of Virgil Van Dijk (suspension), Joe Gomez (leg) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), while Roberto Firmino (illness), Dejan Lovren (hamstring) and Xherdan Shaqiri (abdominal strain) are questionable to varying degrees. Central midfielder Fabinho could be forced into central defense as a result. On the other side, Niko Kovac’s side will be without the services of Thomas Mueller (suspended), Jerome Boateng (illness), Corentin Tolisso (knee ligaments) and Arjen Robben (thigh). Kingsley Coman (ankle) is expected to be available for selection after picking up an injury over the weekend.

[ FA CUP DRAW: Man City, Man United avoid derby showdown ]

Elsewhere in Europe, runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona will visit Ligue 1’s third-place side, Lyon. Though Lionel Messi and Co., head into Tuesday’s first leg as heavy favorites to reach the quarterfinals, Ernesto Valverde’s side has won just one of its last four games (all competitions).

They have, however, been nearly infallible in Europe competition this season, as they waltzed to the top spot in Group B, finishing a full six points clear of Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan. Even Messi has seen his form dip ever so slightly in recent weeks, as the Argentine magician has scored just once in his last three appearances (two starts). Those relative struggles comes on the heels of a nine-game goal streak which saw the 31-year-old score a dozen times. He has been his usually brilliant self this season, and will cause Lyon all kinds of problems from the outset.

Lyon will be without star attacker Nabil Fekir (suspension), which could prove a futrher crippling blow to their chances.