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U.S. U-23s have talent, experience to exorcise Olympic qualifying demons

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Let’s begin here: If the United States fails to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in men’s soccer, it should probably abandon the U-23 program.

That’s pretty haughty considering the Yanks have failed to qualify in three of the last four tournaments including the 2012 Games in the United Kingdom and 2016 edition in Brazil, but consider the talent on show for this March’s friendlies against Egypt and the Netherlands in Spain.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up v. Ecuador? ]

There are Bundesliga upstarts Josh Sargent and Haji Wright, not to mention Celtic’s Tim Weah. Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic is in the fold, as are defenders Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Swansea City), and Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson.

And, oh yeah, they’ll get to add three Over-23 players while also potentially including several eligible players currently with the U-20s, full USMNT, or not called into March camp (Jonathan Lewis, Erik Palmer-Brown, Jonathan Amon, Luca de Torre). Even if the opposite happens and guys make the full USMNT or get injured, there’s depth here and plenty of it.

There have always been names when the Yanks have failed in qualifying, but hardly these degrees of depth and experience. In 2016 qualifying, Matt Miazga, Wil Trapp, and Emerson Hyndman were on the squad which couldn’t get the job done. 2012 saw Joe Gyau, Terrence Boyd, and Bill Hamid.

But this group could be special, favored not just to qualify but to rival others for a spot on the podium. The hiring of longtime MLS boss Jason Kreis to oversee the group is another good decision, and he’ll have this crop of players (and more) from which to select his lineups.

Goalkeepers: Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha Berlin), JT Marcinkowski (San Jose)

Defenders: Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Swansea City), Marco Farfan (Portland Timbers), Jack Maher (Indiana University), Matthew Olosunde (Manchester United), Donovan Pines (DC United), Lucas Pos (Lausanne), Antonee Robinson (Wigan), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)

Midfielders: Derrick Jones (Philadelphia), Cameron Lindley (Orlando City), Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago), Keaton Parks (NYCFC), Eryk Williamson (Portland), Jackson Yueill (San Jose)

Forward: Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland), Josh Perez (LAFC), Emmanuel Sabbi (Hobro), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Tim Weah (Celtic), Haji Wright (Schalke).

Real Madrid confident of signing Pogba, Hazard

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Two of the Premier League’s biggest stars could be heading out this summer, with Real Madrid increasingly confident of signing both Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba.

[ MORE: Has Pogba delivered at United?

With Chelsea star Hazard only having one year left on his contract, it seems he is far more likely to leave, but Pogba’s recent displays and comments after Zinedine Zidane’s return to Real Madrid have certainly set tongues wagging about his future.

Our partners at Sky Sports are reporting that Real are confident that both Pogba and Hazard will arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu this summer. It has been reported that Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, has cancelled a meeting between United and Pogba about signing a new contract (Pogba has two years left on his current deal) and is keen for his client to head to Real this summer.

Asked about the recent speculation regarding Pogba ahead of United’s clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reaffirmed his belief that Pogba will remain at United.

But Solskjaer doesn’t seem as sure as he was a few weeks ago when talking about this topic…

“You can’t guarantee anything in football but yes I think Paul is going to be here,” Solskjaer said. “I can assure you he is now very determined to succeed at Man United. I would say yes I can guarantee, but in life you can never. He will be as far as I can answer.”

Which player would be the bigger loss for their respective club?

Hazard, no question. He has scored 16 goals and added 13 assists this season in the Premier League, meaning he has had a hand in just under 50 percent of Chelsea’s goals. With a transfer ban hanging over Chelsea, they won’t be able to replace him either, meaning more pressure will be placed on the likes of newcomer Christian Pulisic and youngsters Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to deliver.

The Belgian star has spent the past seven seasons at Chelsea and many of their fans, although reluctant, will accept it if he tells the club he wants to leave this summer.

As for Pogba at United, even though he’s scored 13 goals in his best-ever return in a PL season and was the only non-Liverpool and Man City player named to the PFA Team of the Year on Thursday, it is tough to say United would be totally lost without him.

If United do want to cash in on Pogba, the time is now. With two years left on his contract, they could probably recoup a large chunk of the $120 million they paid Juventus to sign the midfielder in 2016. Pogba’s influence in the dressing room is huge, with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard close friends, and the way his dip in form has coincided with United losing seven of their last nine outings under Solskjaer is worrying.

With Zidane undertaking a huge rebuild of Real’s squad which failed so miserably in all competitions this season, it would be a huge shock if at least one of Pogba or Hazard aren’t lining up at the Bernabeu next season. Selling the likes of Gareth Bale could enable Real to spend big, while reports of Neymar also heading to the Spanish capital also continue. In the prime of their careers, Hazard and Pogba seem like prime targets for Zizou to kickstart his rebuild this summer.

Emiliano Sala’s father dies three months after plane crash

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The father of Emiliano Sala, Horacio, has died suddenly in Argentina.

It has been reported that Horacio, 58, suffered a heart attack and died before paramedics arrived at the Sala family home in Progreso, Argentina.

The mayor of Progreso, Julio Muller, confirmed to radio station La Red that Horacio Sala had passed away and that a ‘heart issue’ was the cause.

“The partner of Horacio called me at five in the morning. The doctors were already there. When he left his home, he had already died,” Muller said. “He could never get over Emi’s death.”

This terrible news for the Sala family comes just over three months since Emiliano tragically died in a plane crash in the English Channel. The Argentine striker was flying back from Nantes to his new home of Cardiff, just two days after completing a club-record $19 million transfer to the Premier League side.

An investigation into why the small aircraft flying Sala crashed continues, as his body has been recovered from the English Channel but pilot David Ibbotson, the only other person on board, has never been found.

Cardiff City and Nantes are currently in discussions with legal teams and FIFA over the payment of the transfer fee and other funds that were due to Sala, and now his family, after his big move to the PL in January.

Clubs push for promotion-relegation in European competitions

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LONDON (AP) The head of the European Club Association says the existing Champions League format should be overhauled to introduce promotion and relegation.

ECA chairman Andrea Agnelli, who runs Juventus, wrote in a letter to the organization’s 232 clubs that “European matches with higher sporting quality and a more competitive environment at all levels” are desired.

That points to more games between elite clubs in a formatted Champions League after 2024 rather than less attractive games that can feature in the group stage.

Agnelli wrote “a pyramidal Pan European League System with continuity and opportunity to grow from within enhancement of mobility and dynamism across the system through carefully applied promotion and relegation.”

While stressing that entry to competitions should be on “sporting meritocracy, not historical privilege,” Agnelli says European competitions should be “open to all – keeping the dream alive.”

Agnelli has told his members to boycott a meeting being staged by the European Leagues group in Madrid on May 6-7.

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

U.S. Soccer makes it official: USMNT’s first Gold Cup tuneup to be vs. Jamaica

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It will be a rematch of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup final as the U.S. begins its preparations for this summer’s Gold Cup.

U.S. Soccer announced that the U.S. Men’s National Team will host Jamaica in a friendly match on June 5 in Washington D.C. at Audi Field, the home of D.C. United. Jamaica, ranked No. 53 in FIFA’s latest world rankings, has made the finals of each of the last two Gold Cups, and they’ll be hosting matches at the Gold Cup for the first time in tournament history in this year’s edition.

“As we prepare for the start of the Gold Cup, this is the perfect opportunity in terms of opponent and venue,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said in a statement. “Playing against Jamaica we get exposure to another different style of play, and one that we may see later in the tournament. For us, there’s always something special about playing in the nation’s capital. There have been so many memorable games for the National Team in Washington, D.C., and now we look forward to beginning another chapter in the new stadium.”

For the U.S., it’s a strong test and part of a really solid 1-2 punch of friendly matches, beginning with Jamaica and then Venezuela ahead of the Gold Cup. Berhalter is hoping it will prepare the U.S. for battles with Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. Should the U.S. advance, it could face potentially Jamaica, Honduras, or even El Salvador in the quarterfinals or semifinals, with a trip to the final on the line.

Gregg Berhalter has just a few weeks before he has to make one of his first big decisions, albiet one with a lot of flexibility. By May 16, Berhalter must submit to CONCACAF his provisional Gold Cup squad, which can include up to 40 players and four goalkeepers. By Monday, June 3, just two days before this friendly match against Jamaica, Berhalter must submit his final roster of 23 players, including three goalkeepers.

Berhalter, any any coach, has up until 24 hours until the USMNT’s first game (on June 18) to make any emergency replacements. As such, it’s likely that Berhalter will carry more than 23 players with him when the U.S. plays Jamaica and Venezuela.