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Christian Pulisic in Champions League final: USMNT pioneers on the next step forward for American soccer



Christian Pulisic in Champions League final: USMNT pioneers on the next step forward for American soccer

Chelsea Football Club is based in an upscale neighborhood of London, not far from the River Thames. It is owned by a Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich. The team is managed by a German, Thomas Tuchel, and populated by stars players from Spain, France, England and Senegal. So it may surprise those who have followed the team across some portion of its 116-year history that the Blues’ appearance in the 2021 Champions League final can be traced to a sunny day in Trinidad more than three decades ago.

Every advance in American men’s soccer since is, in some way, connected to November 19, 1989, and the goal scored by U.S. men’s national team midfielder-for-a-day Paul Caliguiri in the 31st minute against Trinidad & Tobago. That created a 1-0 USMNT victory which qualified the U.S. for its first World Cup appearance in 40 years.

A lifelong defender moved to a defensive midfield position for that particular matchup, Caliguiri accepted a pass from teammate Tab Ramos, cut to his right past one man, then back to his left and launched a left-footed shot from outside the box that soared toward the goal, then dropped like a forkball over the keeper’s shoulder and into the net.

Since that day, the U.S. men have played in seven World Cups, advanced in four of them and reached the quarterfinals in 2002, where they lost by just a goal to eventual finalist Germany. They have won the regional Gold Cup six times over rival Mexico and CONCACAF’s other top teams. This spring alone, players who have appeared with the USMNT have won league titles in such nations as France, England and Austria and cup trophies in Germany, Spain and Italy.

All of this is a preamble to the biggest opportunity to date: 22-year-old Christian Pulisic playing a significant role for Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League final Saturday against Manchester City. Pulisic is likely to become the first U.S. man to appear in this game.

MORE: Everything you need to know about the Champions League final

It is assured an American will earn a winner’s medal for only the second time – Jovan Kirovski was a reserve for Borussia Dortmund’s 1997 championship team – because USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen is Man City’s backup at the position.

The Champions League final is the biggest annual game in world soccer, and Pulisic’s performance in the semifinal against Real Madrid is the salient reason the Blues will compete for their second European Cup trophy. He scored the team’s only goal in the first leg with a patient dismantling of veteran goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, then clinched it by unsettling Courtois a second time and feeding teammate Mason Mount for an easy tap-in in the home finale of the two-game series.

Merely appearing in the final will mark another enormous milestone for U.S. men’s soccer. So what do those who have broken other competitive barriers over the past three decades think of what Pulisic has done – and what might happen Saturday against Man City?

Alexi Lalas

Lalas, now Fox Sports lead studio analyst and host of the State of the Union podcast, excelled as a central defender for the U.S. men’s national team at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. His performance caught the eye of scouts for Calcio Padova, and he became the first American player to perform in Italy’s Serie A, making 44 appearances over two seasons.

“No. 1, I feel incredible pride. Because I’m an old guy – relative to Christian, certainly. Which means I’ve seen a lot in the days that I’ve been involved in the game. I’ve seen the ways it has grown, the ups and the downs. This has always been a consistent – daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – battle for credibility, for relevance and, ultimately, for respect.

“And so when someone like Christian, who grew up in the States and did a lot of the things young boys and girls do growing up in the States in terms of playing soccer, finds himself at this moment, at this pinnacle, you can’t help but be incredibly moved.

“The Americanness we traveled with was, at times, a burden. But it also created a healthy chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong. Or, more importantly, to prove the perception wrong. Look: The only reason I had the opportunity to go to Italy was because I starred in a World Cup. If you’re looking at the generation now, they don’t have to do that. There’s so many more pathways and opportunities that don’t require you to do it at the very highest level in front of the world.

“When you can see someone like Christian Pulisic, and you can emulate it, and you can aspire to doing these things, that’s great not just for the game of soccer but for young players out there, to have these touchstones that inspire you.”

Brian Dunseth

Dunseth, now co-host of “Counter Attack” weekdays on SiriusXM and a game analyst for Real Salt Lake, ESPN and FS1, played for the 2000 U.S. men’s Olympic team that played for the bronze medal at the Sydney Games (jersey No. 2, photo below).

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“I think it gives hope. I think it gives aspiration for all the young players. I go back to my timeline and thinking about Claudio Reyna and Harkesy (John Harkes) and Eric Wynalda – all the guys that went overseas. Johnny O’Brien, who was my age and left for Ajax when I was playing club soccer in southern California. They all provided, I think, this pride for U.S. soccer and for all of us. Like: Yeah, man, Americans can make it.

It was the start of breaking barriers. It’s just this kind of slow burn of growth, changing the mentality of how the world sees American soccer players. It’s not just, “Hey, they’ve got a great mentality. They work hard. They compete.” We’re starting to be known for our technical ability, and just being good soccer players. Nationality doesn’t come into play.

When I look at Christian, he’s kind of a unicorn, how talented he is. But when you put that in conjunction with Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna and Tyler Adams, just to name a few … it continues to smash down the doors of, “Are they Americans or just good soccer players”?

Nothing surprises me anymore with Christian. If you go back and watch Christian with Borussia Dortmund, before he made the move to Chelsea, there’s a couple of instances where he’s turning Sergio Ramos inside-out. And I think that’s why you saw on a few different occasions, there’s a respect that’s given to him by just absolutely walloping him. And some of those hard fouls he’s taking, like the one from Toni Kroos in particular, they’re recognizing how dangerous he is.”

Maurice Edu

Edu, now Fox Sports studio analyst, moved from Toronto FC to Rangers of the Scottish Premier League after winning Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year award. In his first season with Rangers, 2008-09, the team won both the league and the Scottish Cup, although he missed the cup final because of an injury. Rangers won the Premier League three times during his four seasons with the club.

“I think it’s incredible for me – as a fan, as a former player – to see him reach such heights in such a short amount of time. You think about his career, he’s still relatively young in his career, still relatively young in age. To get to this point, to have this opportunity to now—not just play in Champions League but actually to be playing in a final, potentially starting in a final, at the highest level, playing for what is the ultimate prize at the club level.

“I think that’s a special thing for American fans watching.

“He rose to prominence pretty quickly, especially here in the States. We kind of anointed him as the chosen one for our national team. He’s welcomed that pressure. He’s taking it on. He’s taking on that responsibility.

“Having two Americans, when they both won their semifinal matches, the first thought that was in everyone’s mind as an American fan, anyone who follows soccer from an American perspective, we’re going to have an American Champions League winner. To most current American fans, unless you’re really into stats, you don’t really remember that Jovan won a Champions League. In many people’s minds, this is the first chance for an American to win a Champions League.

“We’re really enamored by this young group of players and the talent that they have, the clubs they’re playing at, this is just another confirmation of the quality these players have.”

Jay DeMerit

DeMerit, now operating the Rise and Shine soccer camps in the Pacific Northwest, scored the game-winning goal in England’s promotion final that made Watford a Premier League team and made 183 appearances for them over six seasons with the club. He also started in central defense as the USMNT defeated Spain – ending its 35-game unbeaten streak – to reach the 2009 Confederations Cup final.

“Once somebody does something, then the other players pick up on that. I’ve really loved the progression of the U.S. Soccer European player. There was that first wave of Lalas going to Italy, or Claudio Reyna captaining Man City, these were the types of guys that really paved the way for Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra to come through and do well at Fulham. Those guys were kind of my role models; Brian McBride, a kid from Chicago gets out and is doing very well in the Premier League. For me as a kid from the Midwest, a kid from Wisconsin that kind of looked up to Brian, I’m like: Why can’t I do that at Watford? It’s not that I was putting myself on the same pedestal at the time, but it definitely helped.

“I think what Christian’s been able to do is accept the role, first, of coming to the Premier League and wanting that success. Before we used to be just happy to be there, because we were Americans that made it to Europe. But then Tim Howard wins goalkeeper of the year for the whole Premier League at Manchester United – that was right when I landed on British shores. For me to have that … it really helped with my confidence.

“As Christian moves to not just getting the opportunity to play in the Premier League but now leadership roles within Chelsea, which I think he is … he’s relished in that opportunity. I think that’s what he brings the most. It’s almost like a deserved confidence. I like to see that.

“I would say that’s happening all across the board, with our young players all over Europe. These aren’t just guys that have made amazing European rosters. These are guys that are contributing every week, playing alongside the best players in the world, like Ronaldo.”

Stuart Holden

Holden, lead game analyst for Fox Sports, moved to Bolton Wanderers of the Premier League after three seasons and two MLS Cup titles with the Houston Dynamo. At Bolton in 2010-11, Holden became a starter in midfield and helped the club reach the semifinals of the FA Cup and a seventh-place standing with two months remaining in the season. Even though a broken leg ended his season, he earned the club’s player of the year award, a rare honor for an American on a Premier League team.

“I was thinking about this the other day, games in the past that felt big, those experiences you keep with you for the rest of your life. I have these incredible snapshots kind of banked away of stepping on the field in the World Cup for the first time, or stepping in the Premier League and making my debut. I was thinking about this moment for Christian, and while you’re in it, you’re in it. You know that it’s a big game, but I don’t think you quite contextualize that in terms of your career.

“When you think about the opportunity for Christian, the rare chance you get in your life to play in such a big game, that means so much and is something that will go down in history but also such a big part of your life – you don’t get many of these opportunities, and you try to make the most of them.

“To have an American lifting the Champions League trophy, with where the game is in the United States right now, it just kind of validates that American soccer players in general are here to stay, will be a big part of the international transfer market and are only getting better.

“I hope that Christian gets that moment, standing on that stage and holding that trophy.”

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How long is Kyrie Irving out? Nets guard ruled out of Game 5; no timeline for return vs. Bucks



How long is Kyrie Irving out? Nets guard ruled out of Game 5; no timeline for return vs. Bucks

Kyrie Irving’s return to the court is up in the air.

The Nets lost James Harden to a hamstring injury earlier in the series, and now Brooklyn may be without Irving for some time, with the star guard out for at least Tuesday’s Game 5 and perhaps beyond.

In the second quarter of Sunday’s Game 4, Irving landed awkwardly on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot, and he would remain on the floor for the next possession. Irving would walk off gingerly, but under his own power after the injury.

MORE: NBA playoff schedule 2021: Full bracket, dates, times, TV channels

The Nets would lose Irving for the remainder of the game — and they would lose the game itself, with the series vs. the Bucks evening at 2-2.

ESPN’s Rachel Nichols reported that Irving was spotted with crutches and a walking boot after the game.

Here’s what we know about Irving’s timeline to return to the court.

How long is Kyrie Irving out?

Further testing on Monday led to the Nets guard being ruled out for Tuesday’s Game 5 vs. the Bucks. Nets coach Steve Nash says he has “no idea” whether Irving will be able to return in the series.

After Game 4, Nets coach Steve Nash shared some positive news regarding the ankle injury: The x-rays on Irving’s ankle came back negative, meaning it’s likely some degree of sprain.

Depending on the severity of the sprain, Irving may miss the remainder of the series and beyond. Ankle sprains for NBA players tend to linger and can take two weeks or longer to fully heal.

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USWNT legend Carli Lloyd defying Father Time in quest for soccer Olympics gold at age 39



USWNT legend Carli Lloyd defying Father Time in quest for soccer Olympics gold at age 39

Had the Tokyo Olympics been contested in 2020, as scheduled, Carli Lloyd would have been a whole year younger. She’d have turned 38 immediately in advance of the Games, rather than 39 – which, to be frank, still is uncommonly old for a professional soccer player. So maybe those extra 12 months really don’t mean so much.

Or maybe they’ve made Lloyd even better at the sport in which she already is a legend.

“I actually feel better,” she told Sporting News, after the U.S. Women’s National team completed a 4-0 friendly victory Sunday night over Jamaica. “And I don’t think that, if it was played in 2020, a number of different things wouldn’t have happened.

“My family wouldn’t have been a part of it. I wouldn’t have had knee surgery. I changed up my strength program, started working with a guy back home. I have a new trainer that I do ball work with. So I feel like I went from thinking that I’m continuing to get better to just like a whole ‘nother level. I’ve never been this fit, fast, explosive.”

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If it seems unlikely there could be another level beyond excellence for an athlete encountering middle age, you have not been paying attention to the sporting world in 2021. Tom Brady, already the owner of six Super Bowl rings, won his seventh as a 43-year-old quarterback. Golfer Phil Mickelson earned a sixth major title with a PGA Championship triumph at age 50. Helio Castroneves, essentially discarded by his race team as he entered his mid-40s, won a fourth Indianapolis 500 at age 46.

Lloyd may not appear to belong in this age group at first glance, but understand the nature of the sport and the constant, year-round grind tends to age soccer players more rapidly. Mia Hamm played her last game for the USWNT at 32. Abby Wambach was done at 35. Landon Donovan, the greatest USMNT player, was cut from the 2014 World Cup team at age 32. Zinedine Zidane ended his career with a World Cup triumph shortly after turning 34.

Lloyd will reach her 39th birthday July 16, and it’ll be a full celebration if that occurs in Japan while preparing to open the Games five days later against nemesis Sweden. She has won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. She has earned 303 caps, third in world soccer history, and scored 125 international goals, which ranks sixth. Against Jamaica, she became the oldest player ever to score for the USWNT, and she bagged that goal 23 seconds into the match, as though it were essential to get it done before time caught up with her (video below).

It still might. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not postponed the Olympics into this summer, making the U.S. squad might have been a slightly less brutal challenge. Veteran striker Alex Morgan would have been only two months past the birth of her daughter, Charlie, and Lloyd had excelled in the position while Morgan was absent. Lynn Williams had only just returned to the national team, although she performed well and scored the game-winner in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying final against Canada. Promising Midge Purce had barely a cap to her name.

Unlike the World Cup, which allows teams to bring 23 players to what can become a seven-game tournament for the winner and runner-up, the Olympics only accommodates 18 players per team for the six games required to claim a gold medal. For his first tournament as USWNT head coach, Vlatko Andonovski will have to make some excruciating decisions because of the abundance of talented players. He must balance any desire to get essential international tournament experience for younger players with the understanding the primary goal is to field the team most likely to claim the gold medal.

“It is extremely difficult, but at the same time, the closer we get, I think, the easier it gets,” Andonovski told Sporting News. “It gets clearer with the analysis we’re able to do, and the evaluation. If we had 23, it was going to be difficult to cut players number 24, 25 and 26. It is always difficult.

“We have a very deep roster … regardless of what the number is, it will always be difficult.”

Perhaps because there was not a national team schedule to consume her, Lloyd took the opportunity to make some massive changes in her life during 2020. She parted ways with her longtime trainer, James Galanis, who had become a sort of personal “guru” for the player who scored the winning goals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and won the 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year award.

The work with Galanis had been a factor in Lloyd’s enduring rift with her family, which lasted more than a decade. Upon ending that affiliation, Lloyd called her parents and began working to repair that relationship.

She now hopes to win one last gold medal, insisting her desire to experience life beyond professional sports – not her advancing age – will end her career. The only concession to competing in such proximity to her 40th birthday has been the transition to center forward, a position that typically does not require covering as much ground as midfielder.

As is typical of Lloyd, though, she has worked ferociously to master the position, including film study of the game’s best strikers to learn their tricks and techniques. She had made the transition in advance of the USWNT’s triumph at the 2019 World Cup, appearing in all seven games and scoring three goals for coach Jill Ellis, but the arrival of Andonovski meant relearning how to play as a center forward.

“The way the No. 9 position was played was a bit different with Jill,” Lloyd said. “We didn’t high press, we didn’t do certain things. I feel like the way that Vlatko wants our team to play kind of just fits me. I love high pressing. I love putting the defenders and opponents under pressure. From the time that Vlatko came on board to now, I’ve literally just been a sponge trying to continuously get better and evolve my game.”

Lloyd is famous for the personal slights she seized upon for motivation, starting with her benching in advance of the 2012 Olympics that ended with her scoring twice in the gold-medal match. Before the 2019 World Cup, she bristled at the suggestion she had embraced the role of “super-sub”, emphasizing to SN she still was fighting for a starting spot every day.

In the early hours Monday, Lloyd made sure to tell The Philadelphia Inquirer’s excellent soccer writer, Jonathan Tannenwald, she was bothered to have him predict she would not make the Olympic roster, and that she was particularly annoyed because the Inquirer was essentially a hometown paper for someone who grew up 14 miles away in Delran, N.J. Tannenwald, though, only had suggested Lloyd was “on the bubble”, as they say, for selection.

“I don’t think if I’ll be able to answer directly about any player, not just Carli, any player on this team until I really have to,” Andonovski told Tannenwald. “I will say that I was happy with her performance: comes in, scores the goal, sets the pace for the team and does well overall, not just in this game but in the previous games and in training. So I think she’s in a really good place.”

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With 12-team playoff, college coaches on hot seat may have higher survival rate



With 12-team playoff, college coaches on hot seat may have higher survival rate

A College Football Playoff subcommittee revealed a proposal for 12-team expansion last week, a move that became the leading topic of the offseason. 

Soon enough, we will be back to the hot-seat coaches. That chatter never goes away. 

While that expansion won’t impact the futures of head coaches for the next few seasons, the potential ripple effects on the coaching carousel will be intriguing. Just wait until the 12-team playoff and hot-seat talk mix. 

MORE: How a 12-team College Football Playoff works 

That will lead to some interesting questions about the definition of coaching success. 

Is it a trip to the 12-team CFP? Would winning a Playoff game save a coach’s job — similar to a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament? Which coaches would have different temperatures now if the 12-team Playoff started in 2014? Will fewer coaches be fired as a result?

Those are legitimate questions when you consider past results. Here is a look at the schools that would have multiple CFP appearances if the 12-team format started in 2014:

If CFP had 12 teams since 2014 … 

Ohio State 7
Alabama 6
Clemson 6
Oklahoma 6
Georgia 4
Notre Dame 4
Penn State 4
Florida 3
Florida State 3
Washington 3
Wisconsin 3
Baylor 2
Michigan 2
Michigan State 2
Oregon 2

Now, here is how it would have changed the outlook on some programs and coaches in that time frame: 

Which programs would have benefitted with 12 teams?

Penn State, Georgia and TCU stand out.

The Nittany Lions have yet to make a Playoff appearance, and James Franklin is coming off a miserable 4-5 season in 2020. Franklin is on shakier ground than usual heading into 2021, but it would be a different story in a 12-team setup. 

Penn State would have made four at-large appearances from 2016-19. Imagine the impact that would have had on recruiting and how that would have helped make up ground with Ohio State — the only school that would have made the CFP all seven seasons. Over time, that would make the Big Ten East race more compelling than it is in the present day.  

Sound familiar, Georgia? The Bulldogs would have made the CFP each of the last four seasons, which is better than the one appearance Georgia has under Kirby Smart. Georgia has recruited at an elite level under Smart, but the program continues to chase its first national championship since 1980. For all the success, the Bulldogs are still operating in Alabama’s shadow. 

Perhaps in one of those seasons the Bulldogs would have made that run, but Smart’s success in Athens — and even Mark Richt before him — would be perceived with more appreciation.

Imagine what back-to-back Playoff appearances in 2014-15 would have done for Gary Patterson at TCU in the Big 12. Those misses stalled the program’s momentum. Patterson is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the FBS and has enjoyed steady success, but the Horned Frogs are 18-17 the last three seasons.

Which coaches would have cooler seats now?

Clay Helton and Jim Harbaugh have been on the hot seat the past few seasons. Those two coaches are talked about more than anybody else on any given offseason.

Helton would have led the Trojans to back-to-back CFP appearances in 2016-17 with Sam Darnold, and perhaps that would have helped the program avoid a two-year decline from 2018-19. Helton bounced back with a Pac-12 South championship in 2020, but USC might be further along on that road to true national championship contention.

Harbaugh is 0-5 against Ohio State and has failed to break through to a Big Ten championship game since his arrival in 2015. Yet Michigan would have two CFP appearances under this setup, including that 2016 team that lost the double-overtime thriller to the Buckeyes on “The Spot.” The 2018 team also was Harbaugh’s last true Big Ten contender.

Perhaps those teams win a Playoff game or two. The Ohio State question still looms, but it isn’t the only talking point with Harbaugh. 

Which coaches might have stayed put? 

Chris Peterson retired after the 2019 season, but the Huskies would have been a three-time Playoff team in a 12-team setup from 2016-18. Would that have attracted the necessary talent for Peterson to make that national championship run?

Would Scott Frost still be at UCF? It’s worth asking knowing the Knights would have been a playoff team in 2017 and 2018. The Group of 5 inclusion might prompt more coaches to stay put (think Tom Herman at Houston). Frost is 12-20 the last three seasons at Nebraska.

Will there be fewer coaching changes?

Frost is a good launching point for that discussion. Consider that UCF coach Josh Heupel is at Tennessee now, and former Auburn coach Gus Malzhan is now at UCF. 

Auburn would have made the CFP only one time under this format, and Malzahn was formerly a coach that was on the hot seat every year like Harbaugh and Helton. Maybe that changes Malzahn’s status. Maybe it doesn’t. 

There were 17 coaching changes in the FBS this offseason. That was the first time in the CFP era that the number was under 20. Perhaps the 12-15 number becomes the norm in the 12-team era knowing that the definition of success slides with more includied in the Playoff.

Here is betting that will happen, and it will be a welcome change. 

Hot seat talk will never stop, but we’re looking forward to see how those conversations change. 


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