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What is next for USMNT after baffling transition of 2018?

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GENK, Belgium – On a freezing evening in a Belgian town close to the border with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, the performance of the U.S. men’s national team summed up that they are, quite literally, at a crossroads.

Playing against Italy in Genk to finish off their 2018 schedule was a beautifully apt, if not cruel, metaphor.

[ MORE: Pulisic on being captain, Dortmund ]

The U.S. conceded in the 94th and final minute to lose 1-0 to Italy, and the neutral venue for this game reinforced the gear the USMNT are currently stuck in.

Due to many factors, most notably the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle but also a U.S. Soccer presidential election, the Americans have been stuck in a strange place the past year with no permanent head coach and no clear plan.

There isn’t much optimism around this program right now and many fans have become disengaged after a year of rebuilding turned into a year of extreme experimentation. Even the players on the youngest side in USMNT history seems bemused as to why veterans aren’t being called in and why they’ve not been told what the plan is and who the coach will be moving forward.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ]

Lacking direction after a year spent dishing out caps to 50-plus players (which included 23 debutants) as they went 3-5-4 since their World Cup qualifying debacle, this is not the fault of interim head coach Dave Sarachan.

The U.S. lost to England, Italy, Colombia, Brazil and the Republic of Ireland, they drew against Portugal, Peru, Bosnia and France, and beat Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay. This young team was stretched to its limit and the hope is that these tough experiences, in games they were they were largely dominated, will hold them in good stead in the years to come.

Sarachan — who confirmed on Tuesday that the injury time defeat to Italy was his final game in charge of the USMNT — has done all he can with the brief of playing as many youngsters as possible. He put out the youngest lineup in the modern era against Italy.

After 13 months (yes one, three) in charge on a temporary basis, what progress has been made since the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup last October, if any?

“It was my last game. I haven’t been told that, but it is evident there is going to be a change in the very near future,” Sarchan said. “I feel as though this has been a very good year for the program and I feel as the leader over the last 12 months of the program, I feel as though we have moved it forward. It may not look like that to everybody on the outside but to look back on the games we played, the players we’ve exposed to this level, that we brought forth. I am certain it is going to pay dividends down the line. For me, I feel as though when the next person comes in, they are going to have a great starting point. That makes me feel good and the program feel good.”

In other words, the transition period is over and whether or not these kids have developed and learned in these games, it is no longer Sarachan’s problem.

There’s no more experimenting. This is where it all begins.

As U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro (elected in February) and new USMNT GM Earnie Stewart (appointed in the summer to start on Aug. 1) stood on in the press conference room in Genk and watched Sarachan deliver his final comments as USMNT head coach, the attention has switched to them. They’re on the clock. Today marks four years until the next Workd Cup begins.

They have to not only appoint a new head coach but usher in a new identity to this program which is focused on one thing: making the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That journey, with or without most of these kids, begins now.


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Michael Dovellos, a lifelong USMNT fan, travelled to Europe from Chicago along with his parents to watch the final two games of 2018. Like many fans, he is extremely optimistic about what this young team can achieve in the coming years but there’s no doubting they need extra direction.

“It would have been great to go into 2019 now, finishing these last two games playing against England at Wembley and Italy here in Genk with a brand new coach,” Dovellos explained. “Take these guys, tweak the system, play these two games against great oppositions and make them your team. It is frustrating not to have that happen. We’ve waited all year, there’s no coach. We waited until after the World Cup, there’s no coach. Here we are now, at the end of 2018, and we don’t have a coach yet.”

Coach or no coach, this last week has been a humbling experience for anyone connected with the USMNT.

Getting spanked 3-0 at Wembley by England’s C team in a game which the Three Lions treated more as a testimonial for Wayne Rooney was the low point of Sarachan’s reign. The U.S. were so far off the pace it was scary. Playing all of your youngsters at the same time will lead to that but was getting this experience for them all together, without much veteran leadership, healthy for their development?

“When we had it before there were one or two guys,” Eric Wood, a U.S. fan from Colorado explained. “But now there are 5-8 guys. We truly believe in the next crop of guys we have coming through. They are playing international football and are playing with top clubs in the top flights in Europe.”

Against Italy — a team also packed with young talent with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Marco Verratti sprinkled in – they had 26.6 percent of the ball and only a string of fine saves from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath kept them in the game.

Will Trapp, who has captained this young U.S. side for much of the past 12 months, was honest after the defeat to Italy.

“We talked about it in the locker room afterwards, a few more choice words, as you can imagine. Yes, it is about competing and defending, but we can’t defend every game 90 minutes,” Trapp said. “The point that was brought up is ‘the talent is there’ but it is just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That is the difference in terms of what Italy was able to do and what we weren’t able to do. They move and want to get on the ball. That is something with a coach and a style we will see how that develops. It is certainly an area to be improved.”


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It is clear that just being able to qualify for the 2022 World Cup will need a huge amount of improvement from this group of players.

We all knew there was a long road ahead for these USMNT youngsters to gain the experience needed to navigate the CONCACAF gauntlet in the coming years, but the past 12 months has taught us one thing: this process will take longer than we thought.

Christian Pulisic, the undisputed star of this team who also became the youngest USMNT captain in the modern era on Tuesday at 20 years and 63 days of age, knows they have a long way to go.

“They [Italy] came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”

U.S. supporter Eric Sarno echoed Pulisic’s views, as he took part in what almost became a group therapy session with other American fans ahead of the game against Italy as one even admitted they cried when the USMNT didn’t make the World Cup this summer.

They all pointed to the changes at the top of the USSF and how Cordeiro and Stewart now needed to deliver, with some fans questioning if Cordeiro’s appointment was much different than having Sunil Gulati still in charge.

“We are in CONCACAF. We have to qualify for the World Cup. There are no excuses,” Sarno said. “We have 300 million people, we have millions of soccer fields, tons of coaches, tons of facilities. It is not okay for us to be passed by Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras. I like that the game is growing in our region but we absolutely have to qualify no matter what, every tournament out of CONCACAF. This year was about shock and sadness.”

Steve Crump, a U.S. fan who had travelled to Genk from Indiana, called on Stewart to hire his man and get things going again.

“I thought it was a huge improvement to have Earnie Stewart added to the mix, someone we all respected as a player. But there’s been nothing that has come from that,” Crump said. “I don’t understand that someone that we all respect, he sort of seemed like the guy who would turn things around, nothing has happened since he has been around.”

Many things have led to this delay in hiring a new coach, but pushing the program forward hinges on one thing: U.S. Soccer hiring the right head coach to take this young group to the next level.

Is that even possible without at least a few more experienced heads around?

“That would be up to the coach, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and to see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”

Gregg Berhalter is the USMNT’s heir apparent but you would excuse the current Columbus Crew coach if he has cold feet after these demoralizing, rather embarrassing friendly defeats.

A dank, cold, miserable night in Genk summed up the mood hanging over the USMNT. Nobody knows what has been gained from 2018, and nobody knows if the majority of these young players will be called in again.

“The only improvement that we’ve made is that we’ve gone younger,” Crump said. “But we are still in constant tryout mode. 25 players are different than the last 25 players every single time. Why can’t we just have a lineup and get on with it?”

Crump, who declared his anger to the group outside the stadium in Genk, has a fair point. The time for experimenting is over. The youngsters who have taken their chance over the past 13 months should remain but the best 23 players available should now be selected.

“Whoever the new coach is, they need to come in and start making things happening,” Dovellos said. “Make this team theirs, make the captain theirs, make them play for him and make them play for their country. Make them play well. At the end of the day, if a player doesn’t play well, they should then make way for another young guy to make a name for himself and make the team the best this country can have.”

Dishing out caps for the sake of it has to end, but how many of these players who have been handed opportunities should play regularly moving forward?

“All of U.S. Soccer has moved up a level. We keep the ball on the floor and we can move it, but there is still only one player that stands above. Pulisic is the one,” Crump explained. “Just like Donovan was, and then Dempsey was. Only one player at a time stands above. Why can’t we have three players that stand above in our attack, at the same time?”

Tim Weah, Josh Sargen and Pulisic will stake their claim further in the coming years, but right now Pulisic is the only genuine superstar playing regularly at a European powerhouse. He needs help, a lot of it, if this team is going to return to its heyday of dominating CONCACAF and challenging for the last eight of a World Cup.

Only time will tell if 2018 was a ‘lost year’ or one that handed young players vital experience to push on and become stars on the international stage.

Right now, the latter seems a stretch and the former more realistic.

“From last October there has just been turmoil, man,” Sarno said, scratching his head. “Not knowing who the coach is, who is going to be on the roster, the transition time. Turmoil. We are positive, we have a lot of support for our youngsters who are hopefully going to make Qatar. But it has been rocky to say the least.”

Europa League roundup: Arsenal wins; Rangers, AC Milan bounced

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Twenty-four games in about four hours: It’s the Europa League group stage, and it’s reached its conclusion.

[ MORE: Mourinho: “Job done” in UCL ]

A very young Arsenal claimed its group, Celtic bunkered down but couldn’t advance to the knockout rounds, and rivals Rangers couldn’t quite find the offense needed to complete a promising UEL campaign.


Rapid Vienna 1-0 Rangers

Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria. A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past Richard Strebinger.

Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag

Alexandre Lacazette‘s 17th minute goal gave the Gunners a leg up on the group lead in a game with a bunch of unusual faces on the pitch. Carl Jenkinson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, and Saka Bukayo were among the starters, and Lacazette left for Zech Medley in the 63rd minute as Arsenal saved its best for a trip to Southampton on Sunday (No offense to Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny, who went 90 minutes each).

MOL Vidi 2-2 Chelsea

We’ve already shown you Willian’s terrific free kick, and this match in Hungary was plenty entertaining for a relatively inconsequential outing. Ethan Ampadu scored an own goal two minutes after Chelsea took the lead, and MOL Vidi led 2-1 when Olivier Giroud restored the stalemate in the 75th.

Celtic 1-2 Red Bull Salzburg

The visitors dominated and finally found a way past goalkeeper Craig Gordon through a 67th Moanes Dabbur marker. Celtic went down two with Fredrik Gulbrandsen adding to the score line.

RB Leipzig 1-1 Rosenborg

Matheus Cunha’s goal just after halftime looked to have prodded RBL above Celtic and into the Round of 32, but Tore Reginiussen leveled for the Norwegian side.

Olympiacos 3-1 AC Milan

Gennaro Gattuso’s men are out of Europe after a four-goal second half.

Elsewhere
Villarreal 2-0 Spartak Moscow
Lazio 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Sevilla 3-0 Krasnodar
Marseille 1-3 Apollon Limassol
Rennes 2-0 Astana
PAOK 1-3 BATE Borisov
Genk 4-0 Sarpsborg
Dynamo Kiev 0-1 Jablonec
Besiktas 0-1 Malmo
Akhisar Belerdiyespor 0-0 Standard Liege
Slavia Prague 2-0 Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Copenhagen 0-1 Bordeaux
Dinamo Zagreb 0-0 Anderlecht
Sporting Lisbon 3-0 Vorskla Poltava
F91 Dudelange 0-0 Real Betis
Ludogorets Razgrad 1-1 FC Zurich
AEK Larnaca 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen
Spartak Trnava 1-0 Fenerbahce

FIFA won’t be bound by politics over sharing Qatar World Cup

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Political tensions won’t prevent FIFA from deciding whether to place some World Cup games outside Qatar, the head of world soccer’s governing body said Thursday.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used a summit of soccer nations in Qatar to gather support for his mission to add 16 teams to the 2022 tournament – a move that would require the tiny, energy-rich nation sharing games in the region.

[ MORE: Gerrard proud of Rangers in exit ]

That would be complicated by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cutting ties with Qatar in 2017 in an ongoing political dispute that prevents flights between Doha and the boycotting countries.

Qatar won a vote in 2010 to host the World Cup with 32 teams and is only building eight stadiums. A 48-team tournament is already planned for 2026 in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Infantino wants to fast-track that expansion and add 16 more games for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

“Is it feasible to do it only in Qatar? Difficult probably,” Infantino said. “Is it feasible to have a few games being played in neighboring countries? Well, maybe this is an option, of course.

“I’m not that naive not to know not to read the news and not to know what is going on. But now we are in football, we are not in politics, and in football, sometimes the dreams come true.”

Given 32 teams compete for the World Cup and there are 211 nations in FIFA, adding more slots in 2022 is likely to be embraced by the members given they have already approved expansion of the event beginning in 2026.

Infantino used a trip to Doha in October to ask the emir of Qatar if he would consider allowing matches to be shared with nations that are part of an economic and travel boycott against his country.

“If there is something that I could do which is good for football worldwide, then we should look at it,” Infantino said at a news conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup. “I have the chance and I’m lucky enough to be able to look into that without having to be bound by any political considerations, but looking at it from a purely sporting perspective.”

Infantino did use a speech to politicians at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina last month to discuss using the World Cup in 2022 to bring countries together by spreading games beyond Qatar.

The 2022 tournament is already being cramped into a 28-day window to minimize the disruption to top European leagues because it was moved from June and July to November and December due to the extreme heat.

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

Gerrard proud despite Rangers exit from Europa League (video)

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Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria.

A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past goalkeeper Richard Strebinger.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“In terms of the performance, I can’t fault the players,” Gerrard said to BT Sport. “They gave me everything. In what we had available, they’ve done extremely well. The whole journey, I’m so proud of the team.

“We’ll come again in Europe. Next year we’ll be better cause we’ll have some better players with us and the young lads in the group with learn and grow. We’ll be together for 18 months instead of six.

Gerrard says he wants Rangers to bring the same intensity back to the Scottish top flight, where the Glasgow side are two points back of rivals Celtic. Rangers have played one more game than Celtic.

Men in Blazers podcast: Chelsea stops Man City, Atlanta wins MLS Cup

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Rog and Davo recap one of the shock results of the season in Chelsea’s defeat of Manchester City. Plus, Liverpool go top, Atlanta United win MLS Cup and the USWNT know their World Cup opponents.

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