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For USMNT, Gold Cup finally brings chance for revival

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BLAINE, Minn. (AP) The overarching goal for the fledgling U.S. men’s soccer team, as frequently stated by new coach Gregg Berhalter, has been to improve the perception of this sputtering program within the cutthroat hierarchy of global soccer.

Though a strong performance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup probably won’t move the needle much, the Americans surely would benefit, simply, from winning.

Their opening game against Guyana on Tuesday night at Allianz Field in St. Paul, the new home of Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United, will mark the first competitive match for the U.S. since the infamous defeat at Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10, 2017, that kept the team for qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. It follows a stretch of 18 consecutive friendlies.

“There will be some nerves, but for us it’s just about continuing to make progress throughout this tournament,” Berhalter said last week after a training session at the National Sports Center in Blaine, a suburb of Minneapolis. “I think part of our profession is playing under pressure, playing in big events, and this is a great opportunity for us to learn.”

The 20-month gap between competitive games is the longest for the Americans since a 38-month span following a loss to Costa Rica on May 31, 1985, their final qualifier for the 1986 World Cup. Their next match that counted was a draw at Jamaica on July 24, 1988, their first qualifier for the 1990 World Cup.

The U.S. won the biennial Gold Cup in 2017, a sixth title in 14 editions of the championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean. Mexico, the clear favorite, has won seven such crowns.

Before any mental energy can be spent on assessing the ability to compete with their border rival to the south, though, the Americans, who are ranked 30th in the world, must advance from the group stage. On the surface, Panama (75th), Trinidad and Tobago (92nd) and Guyana (177th) don’t appear to be daunting competition, but the way the U.S. team played this month in exhibition losses to Jamaica (1-0) and Venezuela (3-0) there will be no guarantees of automatic wins. The Americans are missing injured players DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Tyler Adams, all first-choice starters.

“If it doesn’t go well you can just feel that more pressure is going to build, more questions will be asked, more scrutiny will be on Berhalter and the federation, and the outside noise is only going to get louder,” said former U.S. midfielder Stu Holden, now a Fox analyst. “That’s why it’s really important that this team has a really good showing in this tournament.”

With the U.S. women leading their side of the world rankings and off to a dominant start this month in France at the Women’s World Cup , the men’s team won’t be able to avoid the comparison game. The Americans can’t mute the fan angst that has followed them for nearly two years, either, but they can at least take a meaningful step forward in the Berhalter era by displaying some potential within the pressing, possession-prioritized style he has rolled out .

“We want to progress. Of course that also means winning the games, but we want to develop our style,” midfielder Weston McKennie said. “Our goal is to make people see U.S. Soccer as something different as what they see now, probably.”

McKennie is one of the 20-year-old up-and-comers the program has staked itself to in the quest to not only return to the World Cup in 2022 but do some damage on the sport’s biggest stage. The other, of course, is Christian Pulisic , who is joining English Premier League power Chelsea from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund for a $73 million transfer fee. That is a record price for an American player.

Veterans of the national side like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are still around, among just six holdovers from the roster that went to Trinidad. They are joined by Pulisic, defenders Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream, and forward Paul Arriola on what has become a youngster’s team. Getting this team in sync, socially and psychologically, might be just as important of a task for Berhalter as with the technical implementation of his system.

“In warmups, they have to give each other high-fives,” Berhalter said. “We do team events off the field, like going to movies together and going to restaurants together. I think that’s really important to build that team chemistry.”

Now more than ever.

“Everyone right now outside has their opinions about us, and the past couple of games, and that’s perfectly fine,” forward Paul Arriola said. “For us the message stays the game, and it’s staying together as a team. That’s how you’re going to win an international tournament.”

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

Europa League: Rangers, Aberdeen, FCSB advance in first qualifying round

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The first qualifying round of the 2019/20 Europa League wrapped up Thursday as the competition pairs down teams en route to the group stage.

A couple of notable teams lived to see another day, including Steven Gerrard and Scottish side Rangers who passed its test with flying colors, hammering Gibraltar side St. Joseph’s 6-0 for a resounding 10-0 aggregate win. Jermaine Defoe scored a late brace but Colombian international Alfredo Morelos was the man of the hour, bagging a hat-trick including a stunning rabona at the doorstep that probably wasn’t necessary but still found the back of the net.

Fellow Scottish side Aberdeen who topped Finnish club Rovaniemen Palloseura – or RoPS – 2-1 for a 4-2 aggregate victory. English striker Sam Cosgrove put Aberdeen in front from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, and 19-year-old Scottish youth international Lewis Ferguson picked up the late game winner in the 94th minute with essentially the last kick of the game.

FCSB, previously known as Steaua Bucuresti, knocked off Moldovan club FC Milsami Orhei 2-1 for a 4-1 aggregate victory. FCSB, who finished second in the Romanian top flight last season, got the winning strike from 21-year-old Romanian youth international Razvan Oaida in the 42nd minute to give FCSB the victory.

Danish club Brondby advanced despite a 2-0 road loss, topping Finnish side FC Inter Turku 4-3 on aggregate thanks to their 4-1 victory in the first leg. Turku struck twice in quick succession after the break, scoring in the 52nd and 56th minutes, but it was too little too late.

Legia Warsaw shook off a 0-0 first leg draw and secured a 3-0 win over aptly-named Gibraltar side FC Europa. A brace from Spanish striker Carlitos led the way, with goals in the 7th minute and 60th minute to set the pace for the Polish side.

Irish club Shamrock Rovers advanced over Norwegian side SK Brann on a late winner by new signing Gary O'Neil who bagged an 87th minute strike to secure the 2-0 win and lead the Irish side through 4-3 on aggregate. O’Neil only just joined Shamrock Rovers from UCD this summer, and he came off the bench for the final 10 minutes and found the winner.

Swedish club Malmo, famous as Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s boyhood club, finished off Ballymena out of Northern Ireland 4-0 for a 11-0 aggregate bashing. Malmo featured four different goalscorers, including American international Romain Gall, who picked up his only international cap with a late bench appearances against Italy back in late 2018.

Croatian side Hajduk Split was upset by Maltese club Gzira United 3-1 at home, which gave the visitors the win on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate tie. Gzira striker Ben Hamed Kone struck for a pair, including the game – and matchup – winner in the 97th minute that sent the Maltese side through. The two goals were utterly spectacular, with the first coming in the 69th minute on a bicycle kick from all the way at the top of the box, while his second was a flick from nearly the same position that sent them through.

All Europa League scores (bold team advances)

Rangers 6-0 St. Joseph’s
Ballymena 0-4 Malmo FF
Legia Warsaw 
3-0 FC Europa
FC Milsami 1-2 FCSB
RoPS 1-2 Aberdeen
FC Inter Turku 2-0 Bronby
Apollon Limassol 
4-0 Kauno Zalgiris
Hapoel Be’er 1-0 KF Laci
Hajduk Split 1-3 Gzira United
Kilmarnock 0-2 Connah’s Quay
KR Reykjavik 0-0 Molde
Shamrock Rovers 
2-0 SK Brann
Hapoel Be’er 1-0 KF Laci
Tobol Kostanay 1-1 Jeunesse Eche 
FK Makedonija 0-3 Alashkert FC
Kairat Almaty
2-1 Siroki Brijeg
KS Teuta 1-0 FK Ventspils
FC Levadia Tallinn 3-2 Stjarnan
Rigas Futbola Skola 0-2 Olimpija Ljubljana
Universitatea Craiova 
3-2 Sabail
Dinamo Minsk 1-2 FK Liepaja
Levski Sofia 2-0 MFK Ruzomberok
Cracovia 2-2 Dunajska Streda
FC Vaduz 
2-1 Breidablik
Haugesund 5-1 Cliftonville
Neftchi 6-0 Speranta Nisporeni
Petrocub-Hincesti 0-1 AEK Larnaca
Torpedo Kutaisi 0-2 Ordabasy Shymkent
Zalgiris Vilnius 1-1 Honved
Zrinjski Mostar 
3-0 Akademija Pandev
Progres Niederkorn 1-2 Cork
UE Engordany 0-1 Dinamo Tbilisi
B36 Torshavn 2-3 Crusaders
FK Kukesi 1-1 Debrecen
Hibernians 0-1 Shakhter Soligorsk
IFK Norrkoping 
2-1 St. Patrick’s
NS Mura 2-3 Maccabi Haifa
Vidi 0-0 FK Zeta
FC Vitebsk 1-1 KuPS Kuopio
Shkupi 1-2 Pyunik
Buducnost Podgorica 4-0 JK Narva Trans
FC Spartak Trnava 2-0 Radnik Bijeljina
NK Domzale 1-0 Balzan FC
Radnicki Nis 2-2 Flora

Report: Barcelona logs bid for Neymar

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According to a report by Sky Sports, Barcelona has officially submitted an offer to Paris Saint-Germain for Brazilian superstar Neymar that includes a $113 million cash component as well as a two-player offer that PSG can choose from.

The report states that Barcelona submitted a six-player list to PSG which includes Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Ivan Rakitic, Nelson Semedo, and Malcom. PSG can reportedly pick two from those six players, and the deal would be complete. Sky Sports did not know the identity of the sixth player at the time of the initial report.

Neymar has become unsettled at PSG after his time in France has been marred by suspensions and disappointing results in European play. He was involved in an altercation with a fan after PSG fell to Stade Rennais in the Coupe de France final in May, and has been accused of rape this summer by a Brazilian girl he flew to Paris late last season. Neymar was also suspended for three upcoming Champions League matches for critical comments made on his Instagram page after PSG was beaten by Manchester United this past spring.

Neymar has reportedly told PSG sporting director Leonardo that he wishes to leave the club in a recent meeting following the Brazilian’s late arrival to PSG preseason training. He missed the Copa America this summer thanks to an ankle injury suffered in a pre-tournament friendly against Qatar.

Over the last two years at PSG after joining from Barcelona via a world-record $250 million transfer fee, Neymar has made 58 appearances, scoring 51 goals and assisting 29 more. However, he’s been eliminated from the Champions League Round of 16 both years, finding himself injured for at least the return leg of the knockout matchup in both years.

Watford downed late by Ajax in preseason friendly

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Watford went toe-to-toe with Champions League semifinalists Ajax for most of the match, but capitulated late as Dutch youth international Jurrien Timber scored an 89th minute winner in a 2-1 win for the Eredivisie side in Austria.

Andre Gray put the Hornets up from the penalty spot six minutes before the break as American youth international Sergino Dest was called for an unlucky handball in the box. Abdoulaye Doucoure danced through the box and as he looked to skip the ball past Dest, it popped up and caught the American’s arm. Gray delivered and put Watford 1-0 up at the break.

The lead would only last until the 51st minute when Dusan Tadic found himself on the ball at the end line on the right, and he cut back to Donny van de Beek through the dummy of Kasper Dolberg on the penalty spot for an easy low finish and a 1-1 scoreline. It would stay that way until one minute to go in regulation as Carel Eiting sent a ball into the box where the 18-year-old Timber lept with his back to goal and clipped the ball off the top of his head for the winner, burying the chance inside the far post.

Both teams featured strong lineups, as Watford ran out stars like Gray, Tom Cleverley, Adrian Mariappa, and former Eredivisie veteran Daryl Janmaat while Nathan Chalobah, Gerard Deulofeu, and Jose Holebas came off the bench. Ajax saw van de Beek, Tadic, Dolberg, and Daley Blind all make the starting lineup.

Next for Watford is a match against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday, also taking place in Austria.

Juventus goalkeeper Perin fails medical in Benfica move

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Juventus goalkeeper Mattia Perin, who has struggled with injuries in the past, has failed a medical ahead of a proposed $17 million move to Benfica.

The 26-year-old Italian international, who only joined Juventus last summer from Genoa, landed in Portugal last night ready to complete the singing of a five-year contract, but the shoulder injury he suffered back in April proved worrying to Benfica who said he would need up to four months of recovery in a club statement announcing the failed medical.

The statement said the Portuguese club was still interested in completing the transfer once the player has healed, and reports state he will return to Turin to continue treatment and rehab before making the move in the winter.

Perin spent most of last season backing up Wojciech Szczesny, and with the return of Gianluigi Buffon as backup, Perin found himself in the middle of even more competition. At 26 years old and with two international caps to his name, Perin is wise to seek more playing time to further his career.

Perin has struggled at times in his career with injuries, including tears of his ACL in both knees at separate times less than a year apart.

Benfica has three goalkeepers currently on its roster, with last year’s starter Odysseas Vlachodimos backed up by 22-year-old Ivan Zlobin and 19-year-old Mile Svilar. 24-year-old Bruno Varela was loaned out to Ajax this summer.