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    Preparing for the pride and angst of watching Liverpool contest the biggest game in club football, John Henry is ready to take stock of the often-fraught, eight-year journey as owner. The perilous plight of the club he inherited: The early mistakes as the Boston Red Sox ownership group found its feet in soccer: The challenge of restoring the team to the pinnacle of the European game: And the toughest decisions of them all: Reluctantly selling players adored by supporters. 'Maybe it's because I'm an American, but I have a difficult time understanding why anyone would want to leave Liverpool,' Henry told The Associated Press in an in-depth discussion of the club carried out by email. 'The club is so rich in history and tradition, supported by so many millions around the world, in virtually every country of the world.' That global standing wasn't enough to prevent Barcelona twice in the last four years tempting Liverpool's star forwards, paying around 240 million euros ($280 million) for Luiz Suarez and Philippe Coutinho. 'You don't want to be in the position where players want to go somewhere else, even if it is a great club like Barcelona,' Henry said. 'It's hard to understand why players would want to go to a league where the competition is so weak. They must play 30 or so meaningless matches per year waiting for Champions League matches.' When the final of the Champions League is played on Saturday it will be Liverpool taking on Real Madrid in Kiev's Olympic Stadium. For Coutinho and Suarez, the Champions League ended in the quarterfinals. 'They'll be watching this weekend and could have been playing,' Henry said. 'But (part owner) Mike Gordon, (sporting director) Michael Edwards and everyone in our scouting department have done a terrific job in making the best of those two difficult situations.' 2010 TAKEOVER The squabbling and financial strife of the previous American owners — Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. — left Liverpool facing not just relegation from the Premier League but bankruptcy in 2010. It took a court battle instigated by the Royal Bank of Scotland in the midst of a global financial crisis for Henry's Fenway Sports Group to be able to wrest control of the debt-ridden club. In the heat of the October 2010 Merseyside derby — Henry's first game as principal owner — the hazardous state of his new asset was brought home by taunts from rival supporters. Relegation was looming after a 2-0 loss to Everton left Liverpool only off the bottom of the Premier League on goal difference. 'Evertonians were chanting 'You're going down,'' Henry recalled. 'We were 19th at the time, but we managed to stay up despite a lot of early mistakes.' Such as when then-director of football Damien Comolli oversaw the 50 million pounds generated by selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea in 2011 being reinvested in paying 35 million pounds on an unproven Andy Carroll, who was blighted by injuries. 'Football isn't easy,' Henry said, 'and building from that squad, if you remember that squad, took a lot time.' TRANSFORMING THE CLUB While fan unrest was dissipated with the return of an Anfield hero as manager, Kenny Dalglish was only a short-term fix. Unity had been restored but it took Brendan Rodgers to come within touching distance of winning the Premier League in 2014. Rodgers was fired in October 2015, but FSG was working behind the scenes to create an appealing environment to attract Juergen Klopp, one of the new generation of super coaches who won the Bundesliga twice with Borussia Dortmund. 'It took Michael Edwards winning more and more of the battles internally to get us to the point that when we met with Juergen he said, 'I really want to coach this group. This will be fun,'' Henry said. Boisterous on the sidelines, Klopp ensured his team was similarly expressive on the pitch with high-energy, attacking football. There have been setbacks: An eighth-place finish and Europa League final loss meant Liverpool failed to return to the Champions League in 2016. But given Liverpool has not even featured in the Champions League in consecutive seasons over the last decade, it represents unexpected progress under Klopp. 'He has done a tremendous job getting us into this position,' Henry said. 'He has been just as effective in inspiring not just our players but everyone who loves this club. He is an inspired, natural leader who is sensitive to what some might see as small things, but are very important over the long term.' Few expected Klopp to be able to find a way past Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals. But Liverpool won home (3-0) and away (2-1) against a formidable City side that went on to win the Premier League by 19 points. 'On European nights I felt like the supporters at Anfield pushed the club past opponents to the point that we were just unbeatable on those nights,' Henry said. 'On away nights the resolve and effort of this group of highly talented players got us to the finals. 'Being in the final is a reflection of the incredible support this club gets at Anfield and the ability (of) Juergen and the entire staff to put our players in the position to be successful. You can do all of that but the players have to step up and they have.' SALAH SURPRISE For all the mistakes Henry acknowledges have been made at Liverpool, decisions can be made with unexpectedly fruitful consequences. None more so than the 50 million euro deal to sign Mohamed Salah from Roma last year. After struggling to make an impact at his first Premier League club — Chelsea — the Egypt forward has been the revelation of the season, netting 44 goals in 51 games for Liverpool to sweep the board of domestic individual honors. 'His record-setting scoring became one of the biggest stories in England this year,' Henry said. 'Perhaps my favorite Anfield songs ever are a couple about Mo. We are proud of more than what he has meant to us on the field. It is highly significant for a global club with a particular set of values to have a huge star who personifies what can be accomplished with unity rather than the divisions among people we see so often these days.' TITLE DROUGHT While Liverpool has more European titles than any other Premier League club, it won the last of its 18 English league titles in 1990 and has been usurped as the most successful domestic team by 20-time winner Manchester United. 'Liverpool has a history in European competition and it may be more important to many of our supporters,' Henry said. 'Is a European championship bigger than an English championship? Most people would say, 'Yes, much more so.' However, in many ways the Premier League is the world's Premier League — there is nothing like it. 'Viewership dwarfs other leagues. Interest in the Premier League is far greater than the Champions League until the last month of the season. Probably because the vast majority of Champions League matches are not compelling for the first few months of the competition.' There's no doubting the final will be captivating when Liverpool's players try to dethrone Madrid, which has won the last two Champions League titles. 'They've been on a mission,' Henry said. 'I expect that will continue this weekend in Kiev.' ___ Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
  • Emails show USA Gymnastics in 2015 came up with false excuses to account for the absence of a sports doctor who had been accused of sexually assaulting female athletes. Larry Nassar suggested that USA Gymnastics tell people that he couldn't attend two major events because he was sick or needed to focus on his work at Michigan State University. A lawyer for the Indianapolis-based group agreed to the cover stories. The Indianapolis Star reported on the emails Thursday. USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians, declined to comment. USA Gymnastics has been accused of covering up assault allegations against Nassar. The group didn't tell Michigan State or elite gymnastics clubs about the allegations. Nassar publicly stated in September 2015 that he was retiring. Nassar is serving decades in prison.
  • Justify has begun preparing for the Belmont Stakes and pursuit of the Triple Crown with an energetic gallop around Churchill Downs. Back at work since returning from last weekend's muddy half-length victory over Bravazo in the Preakness, the unbeaten chestnut colt galloped 1 3/8 miles under a clear sky on a dry, fast surface Thursday morning. Justify won the Kentucky Derby under sloppy conditions here on May 5. Jimmy Barnes, assistant trainer to Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, said the horse 'really seemed to enjoy it' this time. Justify aims to follow muddy wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with a Belmont victory on June 9 to become the 13th Triple Crown champion and the first since American Pharoah in 2015. Baffert has trained both colts and has guided Justify to a 5-0 start as a 3-year-old. Baffert is expected to return to Louisville early next week. He'll see a horse that looked none the worse for wear after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown in sloppy conditions. Barnes' hope is for improved conditions at the Belmont, where he believes Justify can run even better. The 1½-mile race, the Triple Crown's longest leg, poses a distance challenge against a likely field of fresher, rested horses out to deny a bid for history. Justify is enjoying something of a break as well after two races in three weeks. In his first work since the Preakness, the horse looked lively with exercise rider Humberto Gomez aboard. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will ride Justify in the Belmont. 'I saw just what I needed to see,' Barnes said. 'Had a good bounce in his step, very happy. Just took it easy with him out there, went about a mile and three-eighths, just give him a nice, easy first day back out, which we did.' Barnes added, 'The horse does run in the mud well, but you ought to see him on a dry track.' Justify walked the shed row for several days in Baffert's barn before hitting the track to a small crowd of onlookers. The remaining training schedule will be determined, but the son of Scat Daddy by Stage Magic will likely travel to New York on June 6. If Thursday offered any indication, Justify was glad to have dry footing for a change. 'The horse's energy level was still good,' said Starlight Racing managing partner Jack Wolf, whose operation is teamed with three other ownership groups. 'I was talking to Mike Smith after the race and he was commenting on how he eased the horse up at the end. I asked him if he could feel the other horse (Bravazo) closing, and he said he could feel him but didn't feel he was in any danger of losing. 'According to Mike, he thinks this last race will really help prepare him to run a good race at the Belmont.
  • The NBA is defending its quest to receive part of the money that states or gambling companies take in as part of legal sports betting. On Wednesday, New Jersey's state Senate president called on all 50 states to reject so-called 'integrity fees' as part of any sports betting legislation that might be enacted. In a statement late Wednesday night, the NBA defended its position, saying its games are the foundation of what will be bet on. 'We will continue to collaborate with states on a regulated framework that ensures the protection of our fans and the integrity of our games,' NBA spokesman Mike Bass told The Associated Press. 'As the intellectual property creators for this content, our games serve as the foundation for legalized sports betting, providing casinos the ability to earn revenue off our games, while we bear all of the risk that accompanies sports betting and will incur additional expenses to expand our existing compliance and enforcement programs. 'As a result, we believe it is reasonable for casinos to compensate the NBA with a small percentage of the total amount bet on our games,' he said. Many states vehemently oppose such payments, but some have shown a willingness to negotiate with the leagues. Major League Baseball said in a statement Wednesday it will focus on 'developing meaningful partnerships' with state governments and betting operators. Representatives of the NHL and the NFL did not respond to requests for comment. The NFL wants Congress to pass federal legislation regulating sports betting, which could include a determination on whether the leagues should get such payments. ___ Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
  • Travel problems have delayed the New York Yankees from getting home from Texas. Newsday reports the team's charted Delta flight took off after Wednesday night's 12-10 loss to the Rangers. But the flight had to return to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport because of a mechanical problem. The plane safely landed and the flight resumed early Thursday morning. Last week, the Yankees were forced to spend the night at Dulles International Airport outside Washington because of a mechanical problem, rough weather and rules that limit the number of hours that a flight crew can work. An email seeking comment from the team was not returned.
  • President Donald Trump praised an NFL policy banning kneeling during the 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' saying that 'maybe you shouldn't be in the country' if you don't stand for the anthem. Trump spoke to 'Fox & Friends' in an interview that aired Thursday. The policy forbids players from sitting or taking a knee on the field during the anthem but allows them to stay in the locker room. Any violations of the new rules would result in fines against teams. 'I think that's good,' Trump said in the interview that taped Wednesday. 'I don't think people should be staying in the locker rooms, but still I think it's good. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country.' Trump last fall called on team owners to fire players who followed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's lead by kneeling during the national anthem. During a rally, he referred to an NFL player making a gesture during 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as a 'son of a bitch' who should be fired. The president's comments spurred a national conversation about patriotism and the nation's symbols and the use of peaceful protest. Trump said in the interview that he thought 'the people' pushed for the new policy. 'I brought it out. I think the people pushed it forward,' Trump said. He added: 'you know, that's something ideally could have been taken care of when it first started, it would have been a lot easier, but if they did that, they did the right thing.
  • The elegance and precise passes of Andres Iniesta. The personality and stout defense of Sergio Ramos. The intelligence and scoring touch of David Silva. It will all be on display at the World Cup, but most likely for the last time. The remaining members of Spain's golden generation, who helped La Roja go on a dominant run that began nearly a decade ago, are set to make one final appearance at soccer's showcase event in Russia. 'It's a generation that remains very much present,' Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said. 'It remains undoubtedly present. These players are still contributing with their experience and their desire to succeed, because this desire doesn't go away with age, I'm certain of that.' Iniesta, Ramos and Silva were integral components when Spain won the 2008 European Championship to begin its domination of world soccer. The only other member of that squad who is also likely going to Russia is Pepe Reina, a reserve goalkeeper then and now. Two years after that title-winning run in Austria and Switzerland, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets were added to the squad that gave Spain the title at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. All of them were in the team that repeated as European champions in 2012, and they will be there again when this year's World Cup kicks off next month. 'They are important for us,' Lopetegui said. 'They will be sharing their experience with the younger players who are now getting a chance to play in the World Cup.' But it will likely be the last time this group of players are together at a major tournament. Although not all of them have officially announced their retirement from the national team, most have hinted the World Cup will be their last tournament with La Roja, especially Pique and Iniesta. 'If nothing strange happens, this World Cup will be my last participation with the Spanish national team,' said the 34-year-old Iniesta, a symbol of the golden generation that was filled with gifted players and enchanted the world with its 'tiki-taka' style of quick passing and ball possession. Lopetegui said lack of motivation will never be a problem when it comes to veterans like Iniesta. 'He remains in full force,' Lopetegui said. 'He remains with the maximum motivation possible to be in the World Cup.' Iniesta, Pique, Ramos, Busquets and Silva are at the core of a team which will be trying to return Spain to its glory days after disappointing eliminations in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship. Spain didn't get past the group stage in the World Cup in Brazil and was eliminated by Italy in the round of 16 at Euro 2016 in France. Spain's revamping process began after the last World Cup, when it lost the likes of Raul Albiol, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso, players who were key to La Roja's dominant ball-possession style. The renewing process got underway with coach Vicente Del Bosque and continued with Lopetegui, who took over after Euro 2016 and brought in a group of talented youngsters who have helped Spain re-establish itself as a title contender. Lopetegui struck the right balance mixing veterans with youngsters such as Francisco 'Isco' Alarcon, Marco Asensio and Thiago Alcantara, leading Spain to an 18-match unbeaten run and comfortably qualifying the team to the World Cup — its 11th straight — in a European qualifying group that included Italy. 'I'm in love with all of my players,' Lopetegui said. 'We need each player to contribute all they can to the team because we know we can only win as a group. It's the only way it can happen.' ___ More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup ___ Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni
  • A look at what's happening around the majors today: YOU AGAIN Houston's Charlie Morton and Cleveland's Mike Clevinger get a rematch of their most recent outing when the Astros and Indians begin a series at Progressive Field. Morton (6-0, 1.94 ERA) pitched Houston to a 4-1 victory last Friday, striking out eight over seven innings. Clevinger (3-1, 2.87) got his first loss of the season after allowing three runs in 6 1/3 innings. The past two AL champions are in very different places, with Cleveland hovering near .500 while Houston is off to the second-best start in franchise history at 32-18 — trailing only last year's 34-16 opening. ROCKY ROAD Minus injured sluggers Yoenis Cespedes and Todd Frazier, the Mets begin a stretch of eight road games in seven days against two teams currently in first place: Milwaukee and Atlanta. Left-hander Steven Matz (1-3, 4.42 ERA) opens the trip at NL Central-leading Milwaukee. Right-hander Zach Davies (2-3, 4.24), who lost to Matz 6-5 on April 13 at Citi Field, comes off the disabled list to start for the Brewers after being sidelined since May 3 with right rotator cuff inflammation. MAY IT GET BETTER Rick Porcello tries to recapture his April form when Boston concludes a three-game series at Tampa Bay. Porcello (6-1, 3.39) went 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA in six April starts, but he's 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA in four outings since. The 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner faces hard-throwing left-hander Blake Snell (5-3, 3.07) at Tropicana Field. DAVIS TO DL Oakland will have to power on without slugger Khris Davis after the outfielder hit the DL on Wednesday with a Grade 1 strain in his right groin. Davis has topped 40 homers the past two seasons and has a team-leading 13 this year. He was hurt Sunday in Toronto running out a grounder. ___ More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball
  • With its popularity threatened and critics stretching all the way to the White House, the NFL just wanted to get past the debate over taking a knee during the national anthem. Put the focus back on football. Instead, the league seemed to muddle the divisive issue even more with a new policy that stirred up defenders of free speech, prompted a couple of owners to quickly backtrack and raised all sorts of potential questions heading into next season. After a tumultuous season, NFL owners wrapped up their spring meeting in Atlanta by announcing Wednesday that players would be required to stand for the national anthem if they're on the field before a game, but gave them the option of staying in the locker room if they wanted to carry on the Colin Kaepernick-inspired campaign against police brutality and social injustice. Commissioner Roger Goodell called it a compromise that respected the wishes of everyone, from those who consider 'The Star-Spangled Banner' a sacred part of the American experience to those who believe the right to protest during the anthem is also in the best tradition of a free but imperfect society. Yet, it was clear to everyone that the owners wanted to quell a firestorm by moving any further protests away from the public eye — especially if it lured back disgruntled fans while appeasing President Donald Trump and his vocal base of support. Kneel if you like. But stay out of sight. 'This is a fear of the diminished bottom line,' said defensive end Chris Long of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles . 'It's also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don't get it confused. These owners don't love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.' Trump stoked the issue during a political campaign, saying the NFL should fire any players who kneel during the anthem . During an interview that aired Thursday morning on 'Fox & Friends,' he praised the league for doing 'the right thing.' 'You have to stand proudly for the national anthem,' Trump said. Or 'you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there. Maybe they shouldn't be in the country.' Vice President Mike Pence called it 'a win for the fans, a win for (the president), and a win for America.' The NFL didn't consult the players' union on its new policy, though Goodell stressed that the league had talked to countless players over the past year and was committed both financially and philosophically to the fight for social justice . 'We want people to be respectful of the national anthem. We want people to stand,' Goodell said. 'We've been very sensitive on making sure that we give players choices, but we do believe that moment is an important moment and one that we are going to focus on.' In an attempt to quell a potential challenge from the NFL Players Association, the league said any violations of the new rules would result in fines against teams — not individual players. But the league also gave teams the option of developing their own workplace rules, which many players interpreted as a backhanded way of subjecting them to fines — or worse — should they carry on with the protests. 'If the team says 'this is what we're doing,' and ownership (does too), you either deal with it or you're probably going to get cut,' Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. The head of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith , angrily denounced the NFL's decision and called it a blow against America's most basic rights — freedom of speech. Since the new policy is a change in the terms and conditions of employment that was not collectively bargained, any attempts to fine individual players would surely be opposed by the union. 'History has taught us that both patriotism and protest are like water; if the force is strong enough it cannot be suppressed,' Smith wrote on Twitter. 'The CEOs of the NFL created a rule that people who hate autocracies should reject.' But many players are mindful that Kaepernick, who began the protest movement in 2016 during his final year at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, didn't play at all last season and still hasn't been picked up by another team . They're also aware of the plight faced by safety Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick's former teammates and another protest leader, who is also out of work with the upcoming season just a few months away. Both have filed collusion grievances against the NFL . Washington defensive back Josh Norman said the owners have a right to decide what the players can and cannot do, a sentiment shared by many of his colleagues around the league. 'They've pretty much got the teams,' Norman said. 'They make those decisions. We've just got to go through with it, I guess.' A handful of outspoken players vowed to carry on the cause, including Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. 'I will not let it silence me or stop me from fighting,' he said. 'This has never been about taking a knee, raising a fist or anyone's patriotism, but doing what we can to effect real change for real people.' While Goodell said the new policy was unanimously approved by the owners, CEO Jed York of the 49ers — Kaepernick's former team — contradicted the commissioner by saying he abstained. York said he didn't feel comfortable making a decision without directly involving the players' union. New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson took a similar approach. He said his team will pay any fines doled out by the league, without passing on punishment to the players. 'I will support our players wherever we land as a team,' Johnson said. 'Our focus is not on imposing any club rules, fines or restrictions.' So, what happens next? The NFL just wants the issue to go away. Instead, it raised a whole new batch of questions. ___ Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry ___ For more AP NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
  • Alex Ovechkin is thrilled, though hardly satisfied. The Washington Capitals star is headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his 13-year career, eager to put more distance between the Eastern Conference champions and a lingering perception of Ovechkin and the Caps as playoff underachievers. 'Finally we get what we want, be in the Stanley Cup Final,' the 32-year-old Russian star said. 'There's still a lot of hockey to play.' Ovechkin scored just over a minute into Washington's 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday night. Braden Holtby stopped 29 shots to notch his second straight shutout. Andre Burakovsky scored two goals, and Nicklas Backstrom added an empty-netter to help the Capitals close it out. Now, they've got to do it again against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who are Western Conference champions in their inaugural season. 'I feel very happy, but we're not finished yet,' Ovechkin said. 'We've been waiting for this moment a long time.' The Golden Knights breezed through the Western Conference, scoring 43 goals and allowing 27 while going 12-3 to eliminate the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets during an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. Vegas went 2-0 against the Capitals in the regular season, winning 3-0 at home on Dec. 23 and 4-3 at Washington on Feb. 4. 'It's a great story. They're a good hockey team, they have a lot of good players, players from other teams — I know a lot of people say we didn't want those players, but we all did,' Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. 'The rules were the rules. They did a great job, they've been galvanized as a group. There's nothing tighter than that first-year group because there's no pre-conceived notion. Leadership's not in place, nobody knows where to live, all those things are galvanizing.' The Golden Knights' top scorer during the playoffs has been former Lightning forward Jonathan Marchessault with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists). Alex Tuch is second among league rookies with nine points (six goals, three assists). Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who's in the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight season and fifth time overall, has been a huge part of the team's success, too, with a 1.68 goals-against-average and .947 save percentage. Fleury and teammate James Neal return to the Cup Final after facing each other in the championship round last year — Fleury with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Neal with the Nashville Predators. 'They're deep. They're probably the most veteran team still playing in the playoffs. But they've done a fabulous job,' Trotz said. 'They're a fabulous story. ... It's a great story, not only for our game, but for everybody.' To reach the Cup Final for the first time since 1998, the Caps beat Tampa Bay three times on the road to run their record to 8-2 away from home this postseason. The Lightning, the NHL's highest-scoring team during the regular season, didn't have a goal over the final 159 minutes, 27 seconds of the series. Ryan Callahan had Tampa Bay's last goal at 33 seconds of the second period in Game 5. 'It's fun. I'm more happy for that group than I am personally,' Trotz said. 'They did it together. Everybody has been in all year. We kept growing on and off the ice.' And shoving aside a decade of playoff frustration. 'The playoffs are fun,' Trotz added. 'They got to the next level and realized they're not going to be defined by anything they've done or not done in the past.' ___ AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this story. ___ More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey