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2018 World Cup should bring hope for USA

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Watching the 2018 World Cup in the United States of America this summer promised to be a torturous thing.

It has been anything but.

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With the U.S. not qualifying for a World Cup for the first time since 1986, many wondered if the general public, or even general sports fans, would take much notice. Would bars even open early? How exactly would a soccer lover get their fix?

How wrong they could have been.

Over the past few weeks I’ve traveled across the USA and the Caribbean, watching games in bars in New York City, sports books in huge casinos and airport lounges as small taverns in rural America opened early to air the games at the behest of gangs of middle-aged men and their kids and despite the initial reluctance of an ageing barman.

“Hey, are you showing the game?” was heard time and time again in cities all over the USA.

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Good news for the sport in the USA: the excitement and passion for the World Cup is still there, even if reports state that Fox’s viewing figures are down compared to 2014. With the time zone in Russia compared to Brazil far from favorable with early morning kick offs and, of course, the U.S. not being in the tournament, the numbers aren’t that bad. Plus, our Spanish language partners at Telemundo have had roaring success when it comes to viewers of their broadcasts and streams as it became the “biggest livestream sports event in Spanish-language history.”

But back to the actual scene on the ground in the USA and what it felt like to watch games with ordinary Americans who had no real affiliation to a particular nation, despite constant car commercials telling them to root for Germany because of the “frankfurter” or for Iceland to “help with the clap” or Switzerland because of a Swiss army knife.

Actually, scratch that, we all know that U.S. citizens have some loose affiliation to their ancestry roots because that’s just how it is. Germany. Mexico. England. Colombia. Peru. But it was about more than that. Plenty of those nations had huge numbers of fans cheering them on in watch parties such as the one organized by New York City FC of Major League Soccer at the Rockefeller Center in NYC. Not to mention at home or at the office.

Bars were often packed in plenty of the major U.S. cities come lunchtime as fans gathered to watch Mexico stun Germany, England squeeze past Colombia on penalty kicks or Belgium’s stunning comeback over Japan.

The 2018 World Cup delivered dramatic moments which were aired on local news and the fact it only had to contend with the relatively young MLB season meant plenty of the focus was on it. Drinks specials in bars ranged from a pint of Carling for England, Carlsberg for Denmark, Bitburger for Germany or a Kronenbourg for France, while flags were out, jerseys of teams were visible and in places like NYC, as expected, you could watch the games with fans of any nation playing to enhance your experience.

Whole U.S. cities didn’t come to a standstill this summer and they didn’t in 2014 either. But the World Cup was a huge part of summer life for millions of Americans. There’s no getting around that.

There’s also no getting around the fact that not having the U.S. at this World Cup was a missed opportunity to bring in new fans to the sport. That’s something the United States of America still desperately needs despite MLS expanding and TV audiences for European leagues growing year-on-year. Building a bigger fanbase off the back of extreme patriotism is something which has no doubt helped the stature of the game in the U.S. on a four-yearly basis in the past.

The “soccer growth” aspect has been the dark cloud swirling around the USMNT’s failure to qualify for this World Cup. I’ve spoken to the likes of USMNT stars Christian Pulisic and Danny Williams and others about what it meant that the U.S. wouldn’t be at the big dance.

“When I was just a kid watching the U.S. at the World Cup, that gave me so much inspiration, seeing my country and seeing people playing with the U.S. crest,” Pulisic said. “Seeing them compete at a World Cup inspired me so much. Missing out on that is going to be a big thing but that doesn’t mean it’s over for U.S. Soccer. We are still growing a lot and we will do everything we can to be at the next one.”

And even if they don’t qualify for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, kids are still being inspired. The average American still screamed in wonderment when Nacer Chadli score Belgium’s last-gasp winner against Japan or Cristiano Ronaldo spanked home that free kick against Spain or Harry Kane headed home a stoppage time winner against Tunisia.

The soccer culture in the U.S. has got to a place where you can walk into sports bars and fans will have taken the morning off work to go and watch a meaningless England v Belgium group game and tell you about the club team they play on or their son will talk through his college season while wearing a Chivas jersey and a pair of Manchester United shorts. The soccer IQ of American fans can no longer be questioned.

People cared deeply about the World Cup this summer on American soil despite the U.S. not being there. I saw it with my own eyes. Day after day. In several different cities.

Bars were packed in Pittsburgh for Croatia v England. Airports in the Caribbean were full of Americans applauding when Mexico went 2-0 up vs. South Korea. People went to the sports book and put money on teams like Serbia and Senegal just to get in on the fun. Germany and Colombia fans packed bars every time they played.

To me, this summer brought great hope for the future of the game in this country. It is still not even close to reaching its potential. We all know that hosting the 2026 World Cup will be the true benchmark as to whether or not soccer is going to surge past mainstream American sports league such as the NHL, MLB and NFL.

There is a lot of work to do in the next eight years to even get close to that happening but it’s a possibility as 80 games will be played across the U.S., Mexico and Canada with 60 in the United States as the biggest World Cup tournament in history comes to American soil.

For me, this small tale from my summer spent in the U.S. sums up one of the many reasons why watching the World Cup Stateside filled me with great hope.

I was sat at lunch with over 25 members of my extended family just outside of Rochester, New York last week. A 10-year-old cousin shouted excitedly as the World Cup was casually discussed: “I can’t wait for the 2026 World Cup when the games come here and I can see it!” He will be 17 when that happens with games to be played nearby in New York City and Toronto. He is already inspired after watching the games this summer. He is already looking forward to the next two World Cups.

This World Cup wasn’t a complete failure for the sport in the USA. If anything it underlined just how much the game is growing. Seeing it up close, there is still plenty of momentum behind the game despite the scaremongering about the harm a World Cup without the U.S. would cause.

Even better news for U.S. fans: the World Cup is almost over. Let the road to 2022, and more importantly 2026, begin.

Klopp preens after Liverpool win: ‘Our identity is intensity’

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Liverpool and Arsenal entertained on Saturday, with the Reds earning a deserved 3-1 win and keeping the Gunners off-kilter for most of the day.

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds pushed the tempo for much of the match and overcame some wobbly moments at the back to cruise to the win.

[ MORE: Liverpool-Arsenal recap | 3 things ]

They were tough, fiery, and deserved every bit of the win. And Klopp knows it, and knows that you know it. From the BBC:

“Our identity is intensity, and we showed that today. … We were a bit surprised by their system. We couldn’t know that they would play a diamond, but we switched things around and coped very well.

“The last 10 minutes I saw the possession – 53 to 47 or something like that – but over 80 minutes it must have been completely different. For 80 minutes we were completely in charge of the game. We are not Disneyland, we do not need to excite everyone in every second.”

This guy is an absolute beauty. Even those who despise him have to admit that we are lucky to have him.

Klopp’s men lapsed late and allowed a Lucas Torreira goal. The defense has been wobbly over the first three weeks of the season, and preseason was just as rough. Klopp would’ve loved a clean sheet for the first time since the first week of preseason, but he’s happy with the performance.

“I would have loved to have it, but things can happen. They’re a quality side, Arsenal. I didn’t see that many chances, but we were really in charge today and completely deserved the win.”

Liverpool is off to Burnley next, and then will enjoy the international break.

Bundesliga wrap: Lewandowski scores hat trick for Bayern; USMNT’s Morales scores

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What a good day (well, 2 days) for the visitors.

[ MORE: Liverpool-Arsenal recap | 3 things ]

Bayern, Gladbach, Bayer, and Freiburg joined Friday winners Borussia Dortmund in being in the away locker room and the win column on Saturday in the Bundesliga.

Newly-promoted Union Berlin got a point away from home, too, and Werder Bremen scored twice and nearly took a point off Werder Bremen.

Boo home teams. Boo.

Schalke 0-3 Bayern Munich

A Robert Lewandowski hat trick betrayed a halfway decent effort by Schalke as Bayern rebounded from a season-opening draw to claim all three points at the Veltins Arena.

On the American side, only Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich covered more ground than Schalke’s Weston McKennie’s 12.36 km. McKennie registered a shot and completed 32 of his 34 passes.

Mainz 1-3 Borussia Monchengladbach

Stefan Lainer, Alassane Plea, and Breel Embolo all scored in Gladbach’s comeback from an early concession.

USMNT midfielder Fabian Johnson subbed off after 79 minutes after Embolo scored Gladbach’s final goal, registering 10 won tackles.

Fortuna Dusseldorf 1-3 Bayer Leverkusen

USMNT goalkeeper and Man City loanee Zack Steffen had a Man of the Match performance last week for the hosts, and was under siege again this time to less success.

An American player did produce a goal in the contest, with Alfredo Morales scoring for his fourth-consecutive Bundesliga campaign. Throw in the second tier, and the midfielder has scored in eight-straight German seasons between his current team, Ingolstadt, and Hertha Berlin.

Morales covered the second-most ground for Dusseldorf. At 29, could he be one of the new faces that Gregg Berhalter wants to see this September with the USMNT? Probably not, but it’d be neat.

Elsewhere

Koln 1-3 Borussia Dortmund — Friday
Augsburg 1-1 Union Berlin
Paderborn 1-3 Freiburg
Hoffenheim 3-2 Werder Bremen
RB Leipzig v. Eintracht Frankfurt — 9:30 am. ET Sunday
Hertha Berlin v. Wolfsburg — Noon ET Sunday

Who shined and who stunk in Liverpool’s win over Arsenal

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Arsenal was soundly beaten at Anfield by the defending Champions League winners in a contest that proved the massive gulf between the two sides.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Liverpool is clearly one of the best teams in the world, while Arsenal still has a long way to go to be a viable contender a top four spot in the Premier League table. The Gunners invested heavily this summer hoping to make a push back into the Champions League, but they did little to address the defensive frailties and it showed.

Here’s a brief overview of who stood out on both ends of the spectrum as Liverpool stays top of the table and Arsenal heads home licking its wounds.

STUDS:

  1. Liverpool’s left flankAndy Robertson and Sadio Mane bossed the game, of that there is little question. Through the first half, the left side of Liverpool’s formation had pressed Arsenal into oblivion. By halftime, Andy Robertson to Sadio Mane was the most prolific pass combination with 17, level with Giorginio Wijnaldum to Robertson. Mane, Robertson, and Wijnaldum combined for eight successful tackles, seven of which were in the attacking half. Mane himself was 5/5 tackling in the first half, a stunning total that kept Arsenal pinned deep in its own half by forcing repeated turnovers.
  2. Roberto Firmino – The Brazilian’s creativity and inventive nature never ceases to impress. He was at it again against Arsenal, producing space and presenting options for teammates with his top-notch off-ball movement, and every time the ball touched his feet he produced something mouth-watering. His lay-off to Mohamed Salah led to the second-half penalty, and was 16/23 passing in the attacking third overall. His ingenuity is what sets Liverpool’s attack apart from the pack.
  3. Mohamed Salah – While the left side of Liverpool’s formation ran the first half, Salah was the star of the second 45. He earned and scored the penalty soon after the break, and scored a stunning solo goal to put the game away.

DUDS:

  1. Unai Emery – A worse performance than anyone on the field, the Arsenal manager has had a mare. By playing no wingers and having all his attackers pinch, he allowed Liverpool to play outside in and deploy essentially a five-man front line with acres of space on the flanks, pinning his full-backs to the end line. Emery never changed shape once throughout the match, instead just stretching out his defensive line to deal with the Liverpool runners out wide and leaving huge patches of empty space across the back. Bafflingly, with a 3-0 deficit and a half-hour to go, he left Alexandre Lacazette on the bench and instead brought on defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira, and didn’t even bother to change the shape, instead simply shifting the midfield diamond around. Granit Xhaka, the defensive midfielder, was all over the pitch as Arsenal was stretched thin by Liverpool’s marauding width. The Gunners only erased the clean sheet when Liverpool sat back and allowed them to come forward, no consolation for the beatdown they suffered. To make matters worse, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was bright after coming on, making Emery look worse for leaving another potentially game-changing player on the bench so long. The Gunners’ will want to take a long look at himself after this match, because this is the kind of performance that gets a manager fired.
  2. David Luiz – The former Chelsea man was downright awful. The penalty early in the second half was blatant, and he failed to even contest Salah on the wing for Liverpool’s third. He wasn’t helped by Emery’s miserable tactical setup, but Luiz’s arrival has done little to alleviate Arsenal’s obvious defensive deficiencies.
  3. Nicolas Pepe – The Frenchman earned his first Premier League start, and he struggled with confidence early on. Pepe fired a long-range effort just wide of the top-left corner on the half-hour mark that seemed to show promise, but he whiffed on a huge opportunity on the counter 34 minutes in with the game still 0-0, putting his one-on-one shot right at Adrian, a moment of serious regret for the Gunners in a game that eventually got away from them. He waited too long to send Aubameyang through on goal early in the second half and was lucky not to have it given offside. Pepe was good in bunches, completing 7 of 10 attempted take-ons which will give Gunners fans hope moving forward, but that miss was a significant moment in the match.
  4. Trent Alexander-Arnold – With Liverpool looking to cross Arsenal to death, Andy Robertson vastly outplayed his counterpart TAA on the opposite flank. Alexander-Arnold’s deliveries into the box were toothless, failing to find an attacker with balls that floated and sailed, and ruining a chance just before the opener with a bad cutback. The 20-year-old is a fantastic player – case in point, we’re criticizing his deliveries in a game where he got an assist off a corner. In fact, that assist was his only connected cross of a whopping nine attempted in the first half. We know he can do even better, and he will going forward, of that there is no doubt.

Liverpool bests wobbly Arsenal at Anfield

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Liverpool cooked poor, wasteful Arsenal to record the best result of their early season with a 3-1 win over the Gunners at Anfield on Saturday.

[ MORE: Three things | Stars and duds ]

Mohamed Salah scored twice after Joel Matip broke Liverpool onto the score sheet, as the Reds will be the lone 3-0 team after three weeks of the young season. They were denied a clean sheet by Lucas Torreira‘s 84th minute goal.

Liverpool is off to Burnley next week, while Arsenal hosts Tottenham in the North London Derby.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ] 


Three key figures

  1. Alexander-Arnold will burn you — If teams like Arsenal are going to let Liverpool produce cross after cross to elite crosses like Trent Alexander-Arnold, well, they are going to get burnt. Never mind for a second that Alexander-Arnold’s assist came from a corner, the young English defender was given a limitless budget for his invitations by Arsenal. If you disagree with this, well, so does one of my co-workers.
  2. Salah still the one — The Egyptian wizard scored twice and was a menace all day. Make no mistake about it: However highly you rate Roberto Firmino or Sadio Mane, this is the fella who makes Liverpool a threat to win any competition on Earth.
  3. Emery gets it wrong — We get that the idea of matching attack with Liverpool is daunting, but it could hardly have gone any worse had Unai Emery opted to start Alexandre Lacazette in addition to Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang. The way Arsenal allowed Liverpool to send in cross after cross after cross in the early stages, they wouldn’t have lost much by having a third forward. It’s no surprise that one of his subs, Torreira, got on the score sheet.

Man of the Match: Salah.


A lapse in communication between Virgil Van Dijk and Adrian allowed Arsenal a chance to make it 1-0 in the 11th minute. Fortunately for the Reds, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang couldn’t loft the ball into the back of the goal from distance after failing to spot Nicolas Pepe in the 18.

At the other end, a horrible Dani Ceballos clearing attempt set up Liverpool in the 21st but Sadio Mane could only sting a shot that Bernd Leno did well to save.

Jordan Henderson made a terrible error in possession, allowing Pepe to race toward Adrian. The Spaniard bailed out his captain to keep it 0-0 in the 35th.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Matip thumped his header past Leno off an Alexander-Arnold corner kick before halftime.

The next scoring chance will come off a dead ball chance, as David Luiz pulled on Mohamed Salah’s shirt in the box. Salah finished emphatically.

Matip also saved Liverpool in his more traditional office, racing to stop Aubameyang on a breakaway when the Gabon striker took an extra touch.

Salah then skipped past a puzzled David Luiz and dribbled 40 yards too cook Nacho Monreal and Leno.

Aubameyang helped cue up Torreira for a well-taken concession goal with five minutes to play.