The USMNT will be on familiar ground at the World Cup — ESPN’s Insider Notebook has the latest. PLUS: Christian Pulisic’s strained relationship with Thomas Tuchel.
USMNT on familiar ground at Qatar World Cup
The United States will be playing on home turf when they face England, Wales and Iran at the World Cup … as host nation Qatar will use American grass to ensure the pitches at the eight venues can withstand the rigours of the month-long tournament.
Seven new stadiums have been built for the World Cup, which begins with the hosts facing Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium on Nov. 20. The 80,000-capacity Lusail Stadium will become the final new ground to open its doors on Friday when Saudi champions Al Hilal and Egyptian Premier League winners Zamalek meet in a friendly. With the World Cup less than three months away, sources told ESPN that tournament organisers will begin to remove existing playing surfaces and sow the pitches at the seven new stadiums and the already-built Khalifa International Stadium with American grass seed from the start of next week.
The seed, developed by a Georgia-based company, has been selected by FIFA, who have instructed Qatar 2022 organisers to use it for playing surfaces at all stadiums and training grounds.
“The American grass seed gives you a more robust playing surface,” David Graham from Aspire Turf, who are responsible for the Qatar 2022 pitches, told ESPN. “With the climate and conditions in Qatar, the playing surface wouldn’t hold together without the right grass seed.
“From next week onwards, we will start to skim off the pitches already in place and seed them all to be ready for the tournament in November.”
Although Qatar 2022 will be the first World Cup to be staged in a northern hemisphere winter to avoid the searing summer heat in the Middle East, air conditioning will still be used to cool stadiums, both on the pitch and in the stands. Vents at seat level will ensure that supporters are able to watch games at 21-22 degrees Celsius (69-71 F), while larger units at pitchside will regulate temperatures for the players, with underground sensors measuring heat and humidity to keep the on-field temperature at an optimum level. — Mark Ogden
Pulisic’s strained relationship with Tuchel, England’s hopes hit
Pulisic has been a substitute in all seven matches this season and was open to leaving the club in the summer transfer window if he did not receive assurances over his game-time ahead of the World Cup in November. However, sources told ESPN Pulisic had experienced a breakdown in communication with Tuchel for some time, with the winger frustrated at not getting a specific explanation over why he rarely had an extended run in the team and was often played out of position. Pulisic played in a number of positions last season including as a False No.9 and a left wing-back. He was even used as a right wing-back in last week’s defeat at Southampton.
– Marcotti: Will Chelsea regret sacking Tuchel?
Sources have also suggested that Tuchel, who was sacked on Wednesday, had been willing to allow Pulisic to leave the club. Manchester United made an enquiry prior to signing Antony from Ajax, while Newcastle and Juventus were among other clubs to express an interest, but co-owner Todd Boehly is thought to have blocked the 23-year-old’s exit.
Sources say Pulisic is hopeful Potter’s appointment will give him a fresh chance to establish himself. The same is true of a number of attacking players who had become frustrated with Tuchel’s tactics including Hakim Ziyech, who was in talks with Ajax over a transfer before a move failed to materalise, and Kai Havertz. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been given assurances over his role in the team after signing on deadline day from Barcelona in part to reunite with Tuchel after the pair thrived together at Borussia Dortmund in the mid-2010s.
Meanwhile, Potter’s appointment at Chelsea may complicate the English Football Association’s search for Gareth Southgate’s successor as England manager given the regard he is held by senior members of the organisation. Southgate is under contract until 2024 and there is no reason to suggest a parting of the ways before that date. However, a poor showing at the World Cup in Qatar later this year could force both parties into a rethink and in that scenario, sources told ESPN Potter was viewed as a possible candidate given his body of work at Brighton.
His style of play, amiable management approach and adept handling of the media are among the reasons he has his admirers within the FA, though his decision to take charge at Chelsea on a five-year contract would make an FA move for the 47-year-old extremely difficult.
It is a problem the FA hope not to have, as they remain cautiously optimistic of a positive experience under Southgate in Qatar. — James Olley
Steve Nicol explains why he believes Chelsea should target Graham Potter to replace Thomas Tuchel.
Man United impressed by targets’ desire to join
Manchester United were convinced to pay above market value for Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and Antony after the players impressed club bosses with their determination to move to Old Trafford, sources told ESPN.
The trio cost close to £200 million and while there is acceptance at Old Trafford that the club overpaid for them, they were ready to go higher to get the deals over the line because of each player’s strong desire to join.
Sources told ESPN the United hierarchy were made aware that Martinez had confronted one Ajax official when he feared his move to United was stalling while Antony, his former teammate at the Dutch side, effectively went on strike in order to force through his transfer. Sources added United were convinced to switch their attention from Barcelona‘s Frenkie de Jong to Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro after just one conversation with the Brazilian midfielder.
Recruitment staff, according to sources, now accept they should have abandoned a deal for De Jong earlier, although the club remain interested in the Dutchman should he become available in the future.
Manager Erik ten Hag placed a high value on the “character and personality” of his summer signings after becoming concerned about the atmosphere in the dressing room following back-to-back defeats to Brighton and Brentford to start the season. Sources said he believes part of the team’s resurgence — United have won four league games in a row — has been down to the impact his new signings have had off the pitch as well as on it. — Rob Dawson
Craig Burley thinks Antony has room to improve despite a positive start with a goal on his debut for Manchester United.
Real Madrid’s passport to future Brazilian stars?
Rodrygo and Eder Militao are set to follow Vinicius Junior in receiving Spanish passports early in 2023, sources told ESPN, opening up the possibility of Real Madrid moving to sign more top talents from Brazil and other non-European countries.
LaLiga clubs are allowed to include three players from countries outside the European Union in their first-team squads. In Madrid’s case, those spots have been occupied by Vinicius, Rodrygo and Militao. Madrid confirmed earlier this week that Vinicius, 22, had been granted Spanish nationality, having begun the process — which was delayed by the pandemic — back in 2020. Sources told ESPN that Rodrygo and Militao are set to receive theirs early in next year, meaning the club could now target non-European players to improve the first team squad in the January window and again next summer.
Real Madrid were contacted about the possibility of signing Gabriel Jesus before he joined Arsenal, sources told ESPN, but the idea was dismissed because his Brazilian passport made such a deal impossible at the time.
In February, ESPN reported that Madrid were tracking the development of Palmeiras wonderkid Endrick, 16, although a move for him would have to wait until he turns 18 in 2024.
Madrid opted not to strengthen their forward line for this season, relying on the form and fitness of Karim Benzema, 34, and allowing the out-of-favour Luka Jovic to join Fiorentina. Benzema was injured this week during the Champions League win against Celtic and is now set to spend a month on the sidelines recovering. — Alex Kirkland and Rodrigo Faez
Check out how Real Madrid are taking free-kick practice to the extreme with a jumping mannequin wall.
Barcelona’s teenage kicks over rising youngster Yamal
Barcelona want to shield emerging star Lamine Yamal from other clubs and help him maintain a low profile after what has proved a whirlwind week for the 15-year-old. sources told ESPN.
Yamal was one of several youngsters called up by Xavi Hernandez to train with the first team last weekend. He then became the youngest player to represent Barca in the UEFA Youth League on Wednesday when he came on as second-half substitute in the 3-0 win over Viktoria Plzen aged 15 years and 56 days.
Naturally, Yamal’s progression means Europe’s biggest clubs are taking notice. Born in 2007, he is not yet old enough to sign a professional contract at Camp Nou, but Barca are hopeful he will not be distracted by the promise of a move before next July, when he turns 16 and can agree terms for up to three years. The Catalan club are also aware of the attention his development is drawing from fans and the media and are working with the player and his camp to ensure he can focus fully on his fledgling career without distractions.
Yamal was born in Mataro, just outside of Barcelona, and has been capped by Spain at youth level. The forward, who can play on either flank, is also eligible to play for Equatorial Guinea or Morocco. — Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens