U.S. Olympic soccer dreams suddenly in grave danger; serious flaws now revealing themselves

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Building an Olympic team is tricky business. Because you’re constructing a team more or less from scratch, and focusing all efforts into a very limited number of meaningful games.

By the time any major flaws have been identified, it might be too late. Because flaws proving more significant than originally believed can turn fatal, and right quick.

There’s no sugar-coating it: the United States is in a dark corner after Saturday’s surprising 2-0 loss to Canada. Caleb Porter’s team must win Monday against El Salvador to ensure passage into the critical semifinals in Kansas City.

A draw against El Salvador, a tiny nation now inspired by the massive Olympic opportunity in front of them, probably won’t be enough for the U.S. under-23s.

So, about those “flaws:”

Dynamic formations and shrewd, fluid arrangements of so much attacking talent doesn’t mean a thing, as we can see, if the old-fashioned elements of leadership and want-to come up missing. Or, perhaps, were never there in the first place. Without the benefit of meaningful matches to test these elements over the last few months well, you never really know until you know. You know?

Saturday, “urgency” went on holiday on the U.S. side. The Canadians ran and ran and poured everything they had into the night. Too many American players might be asking if they did the same Saturday.

Going into the match, you could say there was definitely still a little bolt-tightening to be done in the U.S. defense. Seeing things unravel so spectacularly against Canada, it looks now like more than that. The problems start with center back Ike Opara, who just never looks completely comfortable or very smooth back there. His timing and positioning aren’t as astute as central partner Perry Kitchen, but that’s not the least of it. Some nervous indecision near goal nearly turned disastrous as Opara almost sneaked one past Bill Hamid at the near post in the first half.  He got all turned around on a Canadian break midway through the second half, and then completely lost his mark on Canada’s second goal.

Opara can definitely can be a bother on offensive set-plays. But that’s not enough, and that spot looks like a real doozey of a U.S. problem.

The first Canadian strike was clearly on goalkeeper Bill Hamid, whose inexperience became a crusher. He was way too timid in claiming what should have been a routine ball into his six-yard box. By failing to grab the floating corner kick at its highest possible point (Goalkeeping 101) and not attacking the moment with authority, he turned a fairly benign cross into a fiasco.

Freddy Adu isn’t playing badly, really, but he’s sure not anything to shout about, either. Bottom line: he’s not doing enough. The U.S. captain (and most experienced international man) must press the game more and ask further questions of defenders in front of him. He’s quite competent in helping the Americans keep possession in the middle third. But he’s not stretching defenders the way Brek Shea did on the left (for a half Saturday, anyway). And when Adu came into the middle after the break, he was even less effective, never establishing himself as the playmaker Porter apparently asked him to be in a halftime tactical adjustment.

Speaking of that tactical adjustment: it didn’t work. Not at all. Joe Corona, Thursday’s three-goal scorer, wasn’t finding the spaces that he did against Cuba’s awful defense. And, as noted, Adu wasn’t having his best night on the right wing. So Porter removed Corona, switched Shea to the right, redeployed Adu to attacking midfielder and added Joe Gyau to the left. Result: things got worse. Only in the last, desperate 10 minutes did the Americans begin seriously threatening Canadian goal. Down by two at that point, it was too late.

After further tests, Lletget to miss 4-6 months

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So much for initial reports.

Less than 24 hours after the LA Galaxy announced that Sebastian Lletget had come through his injury on USMNT duty with no structural damage, a specialist found something worse.

Lletget has a Lisfranc injury and requires surgery, meaning the Galaxy and the U.S. will be without the midfielder for four to six months.

[ MORE: Spurs eager for U.S. return ]

Lletget, 24, spent a half-decade with West Ham but couldn’t break into the squad before returning to the U.S. last summer. He became a mainstay for the Galaxy, earning a call-up to the national team.

He scored his first USMNT goal on Friday to open the World Cup qualifier against Honduras, but was injured after a hard sliding tackle from Ever Alvarado.

Galaxy has depth beyond Lletget and Jermaine Jones, with Rafael Garcia, Joao Pedro, and Baggio Husidic able to fill a similar role, but this one stings for the Galaxy. Get well, Sebastian.

Scouting report: Everton target Orlando’s Cyle Larin

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Reports have been suggesting the Orlando City’s star striker Cyle Larin is attracting some serious interest from Premier League side Everton.

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Larin, 21, has started the MLS season off in red-hot form and the report suggests the Toffees have bid $4 million for his talents. They’ll likely have to up that offer for the Canadian national team star.

What is Larin all about?

With Romelu Lukaku seeming to be heading towards the exit door this summer as his contract saga rumbles on, it’s not outlandish to state that Larin has a very similar style to the prolific Belgian international. Of course, he has yet to test himself in the PL and Lukaku’s boots would be a big pair to fill if Larin did arrive at Goodison Park as some kind of replacement in the coming months, yet when you watch Larin play there are so many similarities between the pair.

Ronald Koeman is always eager to give youth a chance and with Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all getting regular minutes this season, so Larin would get chances to impress if he ended up on Merseyside.

Here are some key stats Toffees fans will want to know too:

  • 17 – Number of goals Larin scored in his debut MLS season, the most-ever by a Rookie
  • Larin has scored all three of Orlando’s goals so far in the 2017 MLS season
  • He has scored 39 goals in 68 appearances for Orlando since arriving in 2015
  • For Canada, he has five goals in 19 appearances after making his debut as a teenager
  • Larin became the first-ever Canadian to be selected as the first overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft when he joined Orlando in 2015

Click play on the video above to see Larin’s best moments so far in MLS, as he continues his impressive development.

Star-Spangled Spurs: Tottenham eager for US return

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With Tottenham Hotspur heading to the U.S. for their preseason tour this summer, Spurs’ club legend Ledley King embarked on a whistle-stop trip of their three host cities.

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King, 36, spent time in New York City, Orlando and Nashville last week as Tottenham’s fans Stateside gear up to see Spurs’ first full U.S. tour since 2014.

Tottenham did play the MLS All-Stars in 2015 but that was a brief one-game trip during preseason. Now, they’ve gone all-in as Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will play Paris Saint-Germain in Orlando on July 22, AS Roma at Red Bull Arena on July 25 and finish the tour in Nashville on July 29 where they take on Manchester City in an all-Premier League clash.

Pro Soccer Talk caught up with King last week and the club ambassador revealed that everyone connected with Tottenham is excited to be heading back to the USA.

“It is something everyone enjoys,” King explained. “We have a huge fanbase in the States and on previous trips I have been able to spend some time with the supporters groups out here and it’s forever growing. It’s really important we put on a show for them and try and give back to them.”

[ MORE: PL giants announce preseason tours

King — Spurs’ former captain who was forced to retire early at the age of 31 after chronic knee problems — met with Tottenham supporters groups in NYC, Orlando and Nashville during his trips, as well as taking in some iconic sights from all three cities.

One thing which stood out to the towering former central defender was the dedication Spurs fans in the States have for their team.

“It’s amazing,” King said. “A lot of the supporters make trips over to White Hart Lane when they can and they are obviously very clued up on everything that’s happening surrounding the club, all the recent moves, they are all up to date. Whenever I come away, no matter how far away from home, I bump into Spurs fans everywhere which is great.”

Pochettino’s players will be based on the east coast of the U.S. for the trip this summer but they will soak up three very different cities. From the hustle and bustle of NYC to the theme parks and heat of Orlando and laid-back sights in Nashville, Tottenham’s players will get a real taste of America this summer.

“Every city is quite different, the weather especially!” King laughed as he’d traveled from a frigid NYC to steamy Orlando in 24 hours. “The Spurs fans are all there and they greeted us in every city we went to which was great. They will get fully behind the team when the lads come out this summer. I would imagine most of the boys have been to New York before but I don’t think many have been to Nashville. It is great that they can experience what a nice place it is and I’m sure the team will be looking forward to it.”

On King’s quick trip the former England international was able to catch up with Man vs. Food star, and huge Spurs fan, Adam Richman in NYC, plus pose for a few classic photos. With U.S. national team stars Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey, DeAndre Yedlin and current center back prospect Cameron Carter-Vickers all calling White Hart Lane home over the years, Spurs’ links with the U.S. are strong.

Like many of Spurs’ current first team players, King is also a huge fan of U.S. sports. Harry Kane is a massive New England Patriots fan, while the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Eric Dier and Dele Alli are avid followers of many American sports.

King is no different and, somewhat unsurprisingly, he is a big fan of a certain NBA team from San Antonio…

“I’m big into basketball and the NBA at the moment. I’ve always followed players. I was a big Kobe Bryant fan years ago but there are players I like now, LeBron James, Steph Curry. I like the San Antonio Spurs, obviously…” King laughed. “I like their organization and the way they are run. They’ve had an infrastructure in place and keep performing at a high level. I’m a big basketball fan and I’m trying to get into the NFL more. I’ve met quite a few players the last few years on their trips to London and our training ground and I’m really looking forward to all of the NFL teams coming over to London and Tottenham once our new stadium is ready.”

 

With Spurs’ new 61,000 capacity stadium at White Hart Lane scheduled to be ready for the 2018-19 Premier League season, they’ve signed a 10-year deal with the NFL to host at least two games per season in London. That will keep fans of both types of football on either sides of the pond very happy.

As for fans in the U.S., King applauded their dedication and revealed the different reaction PL players receive when they come Stateside.

“I think what makes it special is their passion and love of the game,” King said. “In England, the fans are spoiled with being able to come to games and seeing players. When players and the likes of myself are able to come over to this side of the pond and meet fans in the flesh, the fans in the U.S. seem genuinely shocked that we are actually there. There is always a big surprise and we get a good reaction when we are in their company or in their country. That’s a nice treat.”

With so many teams coming to the U.S. from all over Europe each summer to train, play against each other in preseason tournaments and try to capture the hearts and imaginations of the American public, what will Spurs, a team who has battled for the PL title the past two seasons, aim to gain from their time Stateside?

“We have an exciting team and an exciting project with a young group of players and I think the U.S. fans like the underdog, ” King said. “We are not a team who goes out and spends huge sums of money. We try to do things the right way and play the game the right way. I think the fans appreciate that and we would like to grow our fanbase. The other thing in coming out here is that we get the weather and the opposition. The opposition we will be competing against is at a very, very high level, and that will enable our players to get the right preparation for the new season. On all levels it works really well.”

Another thing which has gone really well in recent years is the popularity of the Premier League in the U.S.

There’s no shying away from the fact that more and more fans of the PL are popping up across the country and preseason games involving Premier League clubs are selling out. Has King noticed a difference in how soccer is now perceived compared to previous trips across the pond?

“Just coming here on this trip, you can see the interest in the Premier League is growing,” King said. “I’ve never been to Nashville before but going there surprised me. When we did the press conference so many people wanted to come down and everyone was passionate about the game. Overall, people really know their stuff about the Premier League and in MLS with great players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard coming over recently and obviously Robbie Keane doing so well in LA, all of these little things add up to people looking at the Premier League. It is the most exciting league in the world. Americans like their fast-paced action and that’s what you get with the Premier League.”

Fans Stateside this summer will be getting to see the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United up close and personal.

How will USMNT line up vs. Panama?

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Following on from their stunning 6-0 win against Honduras on Friday to get their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign back on track, Bruce Arena and the U.S. national team face Panama in Panama City on Tuesday.

This will be a totally different test for the USMNT.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

With veterans Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey all available for selection, Arena will call on them to help guide the likes of Christian Pulisic through what will be a hostile environment in Panama.

The U.S. currently sits in fourth place in the Hexagonal standings with three points (that means they occupy the play-off spot) one place and one point below Panama while Mexico is top on seven points and Costa Rica sit in second place on six points. Right now, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama will qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

A win for Arena’s men would be very handy indeed, especially with a trip to Mexico coming up this summer, but a point on the road in humid conditions in Central America is nothing to scoff at either.

Arena is without both John Brooks and Sebastian Lletget through injury, as the USMNT head coach hinted that he could make up to four or five changes from the team which beat Honduras.

Below is a look at a few options for how the U.S. can line up in Panama on Tuesday.


JPW’s pick

—– Howard —–

— Zusi — Cameron — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bradley —- Jones —-

— Bedoya — Dempsey — Pulisic —

—– Altidore —–

Most likely XI

—– Howard —–

— Cameron — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bedoya —- Bradley —- Jones —-

—- Dempsey —- Altidore —- Pulisic —

 

Defensive XI

—– Howard —–

— Zusi — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bradley —- Cameron —-

— Bedoya —- Dempsey —- Pulisic —

—– Altidore —–

Thoughts

My pick sees four changes to the starting lineup from last Friday’s big win. Tim Ream would come in for the injured Brooks at center back, while Graham Zusi would start at right back and Geoff Cameron slots in at center back to replace Omar Gonzalez who looked shaky against Honduras. In midfield having a more defensive option in Jermaine Jones could be the smart play but that would mean losing Darlington Nagbe who did well against Honduras while Jones was suspended. Alejandro Bedoya would be a straight-swap for the injured Lletget as he would line up alongside Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic in support of Altidore.

The more defensive option would see Cameron partner Bradley in central midfield and Gonzalez keep his place at center back, while the more likely option for Arena is just three changes with Ream in for Brooks, Bedoya in for Lletget and Jones in for Nagbe. If it ain’t broken, there’s no need to fix it and Arena will not want to upset the rhythm of his side who looked so balanced and clinical against Honduras. Having Jones back from suspension will help navigate this tricky road trip where a point is a good result and that’s a totally different scenario to the must-win mentality adopted for last Friday’s game.