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Walker: Southgate ‘backbone of this team; man’s a gentleman’

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Oh, the difference 24 months can make.

[ MORE: Deschamps: EURO heartbreak drives France to World Cup final ]

The entire footballing world could infer pretty safely that the vibe surrounding the England camp had changed massively between the time the Three Lions were eliminated from the 2016 European Championship — at the hands of Iceland — and Wednesday, when Gareth Southgate‘s side was defeated by Croatia in the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup.

Following Wednesday’s heartbreaking failure, Kyle Walker, who was in the squad and on the field when the full-time whistle blew and England were effectively embarrassed after losing in such hopeless fashion, spoke passionately of the 180-degree turnaround in terms of belief and support that he has witnessed over two years, and that he felt in the moments immediately following the end of extra time — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was there in France, in the Iceland game, and it was completely different to that. For them to still be singing when we’re seeing friends and families, chanting our names and singing the manager’s name, is completely different. And I think we need to take full credit for that because we’ve changed that.

“I think the football has brought the nation together, people are going to pubs and celebrating, and that’s what football should be about. It’s enjoyable, we all love to play the game and fans love to support it. So it’s hats off to us. It’s unlucky we couldn’t bring it home for them, but hopefully there’s time in the future.”

“There’s nothing better, when people are writing you off and saying, ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt,’ slagging people off, it’s kind of saying: ‘Well, there you go, have that back at you.’ But we do it for ourselves as well.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am to share the dressing room with these players. We’ve all grown up watching England, and to represent your country at a semifinal of a World Cup, there’s no better feeling.”

[ MORE: Mourinho: England needs to keep coaches for next World Cup ]

As for Southgate, to hear Walker tell it, there’s not a single person in the locker room that wouldn’t run through a brick wall for him.

“The man’s a gentleman. That’s the best way to describe him. He’s been in our shoes. He relates to us massively. He knows what to say at the right time. And he makes you feel like you’re the best player in the world. He gives you that confidence, and I think that he needs to take the most credit out of everyone of us.

“We’re the guys who are running on the pitch, but he’s the backbone of this team. He’s made sure that everyone has stuck together through good and bad moments, and made sure our feet stayed on the floor. I can’t put into words how much credit he deserves for this.

And to think, Southgate only wound up in the job — one he pretty openly and firmly stated he didn’t want — because Sam Allardyce incriminated himself in a newspaper sting operation after 67 days on the job.

Southgate was the England U-21 manager at the time. Fast-forward 22 months, and he’s a near-lock to receive a four-year contract and be tasked with leading his country through the upcoming EURO and World Cup cycles.

England inspire nation as Premier League stars shine

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England have reached their first World Cup semifinal since 1990 and in doing so they’ve inspired an entire nation to once again believe in their national team.

[ MORE: England bring pride, unity ]

After plenty of heartbreak over the past five decades since their only major trophy, the World Cup in 1966, England is united behind the Three Lions.

Ahead of the 2018 World Cup tournament, nobody either at home or abroad gave Gareth Southgate‘s young side much hope of advancing to the latter stages.

But with the Three Lions, the youngest team left in the competition, facing Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday for a place in the final, an entire nation is behind their likable, hard-working squad.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“Football’s Coming Home” is the new mantra for every English man and woman, even if many started signing it ironically as they didn’t believe this would be the case at all. The song, originally released to help England win on home soil at EURO ’96, has now surged back to the top of the charts in the UK amid the patriotic euphoria surrounding captain Harry Kane and Co.

“It’s amazing to meet any heroes from ’66 and it gives you so much inspiration, obviously it’s been a long time since England have done well in a major tournament,” Kane said. “As a player and as a professional I know that I have a job, on and off the pitch, to inspire people and inspire kids watching this tournament. It’s amazing because I was one of those kids growing up who wanted to play for England. So to be here now, leading this team out, I’m so proud.”

Pride. Unity. Respect. All three have been forthcoming in recent weeks as England’s youngster have eased into the semifinals in Russia. Most of their fans have looked on delighted, yet slightly bemused, as all they’ve known is heartache and disappoint as the “golden generation” of David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard came and went without a trip past the last eight of a major tournament.

On the streets of England the words “it’s coming home” is being muttered, yelled and sung by millions as the Three Lions, for once, have inspired a nation with huge watch parties up and down the land leading to pints of beer flying into the sky in celebration time and time again.

Even Southgate, who got the England job after being promoted from the U-21 boss following Sam Allardyce’s disgraceful sacking, has become a symbol of hope as his kind, courteous demeanour has been a breath of fresh air. He looks, and acts, like your favorite uncle as his waistcoats have become legendary and #GarethSouthgateWould sums up his character perfectly.

With England, and the rest of the UK, currently embroiled in political turmoil regarding Brexit and a deteriorating relationship with Russia, the national team have brought the nation together at least for a few weeks.

Southgate hit the nail on the head when he spoke about England fans from different backgrounds now feeling that this is their team with his players representative of the multi-cultural British society.

“We are a team with our diversity and with our youth that represents modern England,” Southgate said. “In England we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is and I think as a team we represent that modern identity, and hopefully people can connect with us.”

And it’s not just the English national team who have benefited from fielding youngsters used to playing in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League.

Both Belgium and France, who face off in the other semifinal in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, have been led by young squads, many of whom flourish week in, week out in England’s top-flight.

In total there are 41 Premier League players remaining at the World Cup out of a total of 92 players. That’s quite remarkable.

England have 23 PL players. Belgium have 12. France five. Croatia one.

When you look at the Europe’s other top leagues, 12 players from La Liga remain, plus nine from the Bundesliga, 12 from Ligue 1 and eight from Serie A. The Premier League has been one of the biggest winners from this World Cup, as stars such as Harry Kane, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Hugo Lloris have shone.

Tottenham Hotspur has more players remaining at the World Cup than any other club on the planet with nine and you can point to the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino mangaging in the Premier League in having a huge impact on how England have fared due to their faith in giving young English players a chance to shine.

The financial muscle of the Premier League makes it tough for young Englishman to break through, but we are starting to see that the ones who do make it are not only worthy of their spot on the national stage but also the global one.

England have given their nation reason to dream and the Premier League stars who litter the final four will make sure those dreams continue to be met in stadiums across the country for the 2018/19 campaign and beyond.

Even if football isn’t coming home, the state of the English national team and the Premier League is very healthy indeed.


Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Why they’ll win the World Cup: England

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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That said, let’s talk about why England will be lifting the World Cup trophy on July 15 in Moscow.

[ RECAP: England tops Sweden ]

There’s an argument to be made that all four World Cup semifinalists are playing with house money. Didier Deschamps has already declared France’s tournament a success; Belgium’s Golden Generation has scored several historically memorable wins; Croatia was bounced at the group stage at its three previous World Cups, and England’s men have met their first semi in ages.

If that’s the way England continues to view their tournament, then perhaps the title really may be “coming home.” It seems the media and fans are riding the momentum of an unexpected run and relatively easy path to the final instead of doing what they usually do: Heaping pressure on England due to “an opportunity that cannot be dropped!”

England has emerged relatively unscathed, driven by the performances of two fellas named Harry, a Jordan, and a Kieran.

While Harry Kane‘s heroics have been well-documented at Tottenham Hotspur, his teammate Kieran Trippier has mostly been under the radar going back to his time leading the Premier League in crosses with Burnley.

And Harry Maguire was the star man on Hull City’s relegation campaign in 2016-17 before moving to Leicester City and performing well albeit under the radar last season (Note to self: Keep looking at which PL relegated players haven’t landed with new PL clubs).

Then there’s Jordan Pickford, the Everton-via-Sunderland backstop who is enjoying not being massively under fire for once in his last three seasons. The Northeast England native may be called upon to reprise his busy act soon, but has so far been constrained to the occasional mega watt save.

In taking over for Sam Allardyce, Gareth Southgate has been the anti-Big Sam: no bluster, all feel good. And we know the honeymoon may not last forever, but the ex-Middlesbrough boss so far has the momentum of something much bigger than his resume.

The sum of its parts > England’s collection of talent.

Maybe the World Cup trophy is “coming home.”

Report: Wayne Rooney agrees to three-year D.C. deal

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Wayne Rooney continues to edge closer to completing his move to D.C. United in Major League Soccer, as the Everton forward is said to have been told he’s not needed by new Toffees boss Marco Silva.

Rooney, 32, flew out to D.C. last month to tour the club and he has been in talks with the MLS side about arriving in early July when the transfer window re-opens in North America’s top-flight.

A report from the Daily Mirror in the UK claims that Rooney is “furious” after “being told he is not in Marco Silva’s plans.”

Per the report, Rooney doesn’t seem to keen on a move to MLS but it appears he will be nothing more than a bit-part player under Silva, who was officially unveiled on June 4. During his opening press conference Silva, along with new director of football Marcel Brands, spoke about Rooney’s move to DCU almost being completed but that they would sit down with him and let him decide what he wants to do.

It appears that talk didn’t go the way Rooney wanted it to…

With Rooney’s return to his boyhood club set to last for just one season after his glittering, record-breaking career with Manchester United and England, there is an air of disappointment within the blue half of Merseyside as to how this has played out.

Rooney can still hold his head high after leading Everton’s scoring charts (11 goals in all competitions) in a troubled 2017/18 campaign which initially saw them battling relegation with Ronald Koeman fired, then Sam Allardyce moving them into midtable but defensive tactics cost Big Sam his job at the end of the season.

Silva is known to prefer young, speedy attackers and Rooney isn’t that, and he hasn’t been that for quite some time. He could still score and contribute from a deeper position but it appears he won’t get that chance at Everton.

Now he’s on his way to MLS.

Three things we learned from USMNT’s defeat in Dublin

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The U.S. men’s national team fell to defeat at the hands of Ireland in Dublin on Saturday, and it was a mostly abysmal performances on all levels of the field. Three thoughts and/or lessons to take away…

[ MORE: USMNT throws away HT lead, loses 2-1 in Dublin ]

Miazga, CCV struggle

Cameron Carter-Vickers has all the physical tools needed — size, strength, quickness, aerial presence — to develop into one of the best defenders the U.S. has ever seen, but his inability to read the game quickly and make the right decisions on instincts which plagued him not only last year when he made his USMNT debut (at 19) and a handful of appearances for Tottenham Hotspur in early-round cup games, but continued to do so on Saturday against Ireland.

Being overly aggressive is something that can be tempered and controlled as a player’s career unfolds — teaching players to be more aggressive when it doesn’t come naturally for them; not so much — but following a pair of half-season loan spells to the Championship, one would have hoped to have seen a bit of progression in that department. Alas, Saturday saw more of the same mistakes: over-committing into midfield without making the challenge or tackle; not recognizing runners in the channels.

Matt Miazga, who by all accounts had a brilliant season on loan to Vitesse — it’s the Dutch league, after all — struggled as well, but in fairness to him, much of his difficulties on the day stemmed from CCV’s shortcomings alongside him. Miazga getting torched by James McClean, however, was all on the former New York Red Bulls and current Chelsea man.

Directionless midfield

With Christian Pulisic, the USMNT’s de facto no. 10 these days, departing camp and heading for (a much-needed) summer vacation after the win over Bolivia, interim head coach Dave Sarachan opted for a three-man midfield of Wil Trapp, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie.

Some thoughts: that’s a whole lot of industry and work rate; that’s a ton of energy; that’s a ton of ball-hawking instincts.

A question: who’s supposed to harness all of that unbridled energy and youth?

Answer: there wasn’t anyone, and the first half looked like a trio of chickens running 60 yards up and down the field with their heads cut off.

Adams and McKennie have blindingly bright futures ahead of them, which they’ll come much closer to realizing during a run of games playing directly behind the focal point that is Pulisic.

Yedlin a continuous bright spot

DeAndre Yedlin is perhaps the best sterling example of what moving to Europe at a young-ish age can do for American players developed in MLS. When he moved from Seattle Sounders to Tottenham at the age of 21, he did exactly two things well: run fast and overlap to stretch the field.

Now, following years of tutelage under a defensive brute like Sam Allardyce, and a tactical mastermind of Rafa Benitez‘s caliber, Yedlin is only just entering the prime of his career (he’ll turn 25 next month) after undergoing a three-year transformation which has seen him come out the other side a genuinely passable right-sided defender on top of the threat he brings going forward.

After nearly a decade where right back was pretty clearly the USMNT’s greatest weakness along the backline, Yedlin now has the spot locked down for another World Cup cycle… if not two.