U.S. under-23s: If the London-bound train gets back on track, they’ll need reinforcement

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Putting the ol’ cart before the horse is part of the human condition. We just can’t resist.

So we talked at will of over-aged players for the U.S. under-23 side, which we always presumed would become the U.S. Olympic side – and would therefore be positioned to summon its three, permissible over-aged incredibles.

Well, that cart and the horse went off in a ditch Saturday.

It’s just a ditch, though; nobody spilled fully over a cliff here. There’s time and opportunity to put things right tonight, move into Kansas City this weekend and book a sweaty passage to London, even if the mission is tougher today than it seemed Saturday afternoon.

Should things go horribly askew this evening and the United States fail to move forward, we’ll fill up pages with second-guess discussion points.

But bummer of bummers: supporters and media will be denied their given right to discuss and debate these over-aged selections. What a shame, too, because this is a trusty favorite of quadrennial talking points for domestic soccer fans.  It’s a real-life opportunity to play fantasy sports: you study the team, pick apart its weaker points and add feel good about adding the necessary reinforcement.

I’m quite sure Caleb Porter will appreciate the assistance.

So we cannot be denied this chance!

Especially today, as we know much more about where those three over-aged spots should go. Two qualifying matches have taught us so much.

Assumption: Landon Donovan and / or Clint Dempsey would be needed to beef up the attack, to add some veteran wile and big game experience.

Confirmation: And how. Coaches will tell you that skills get you only so far. The game requires problem solving. It’s one of the things that make soccer unique. Timeouts in basketball and the very nature of football make those a “coach’s game.” In soccer, the man on the bench can only do so much once the referee blows his whistle. The players must think their way around the chessboard. The must quickly assess: What’s working on a given day? Where are the spaces to exploit? Where are the matchup problems? Who is “feeling it.”

Potential resolution: Donovan and Dempsey possess that faculty. And, of course, they own world class ability, as well.

Assumption: Center back was an issue. Carlos Bocanegra (above right) would be required.

Confirmation: Yup.

A veteran center back seems an absolute must. But should it be Bocanegra? This one deserves further thought.

The longtime U.S. international could clearly assist back there, adding much needed organization, leadership and plenty of solid tackling. On the other hand, he’ll be 33 by this summer. His shrewd positioning can help him mitigate a clear speed advantage some of the young blazers will enjoy – but he’ll still be exposed here and there.

Plus, this will be a busy summer to the Rangers man. He’ll surely be involved in U.S. World Cup qualifying contests. And who knows what might happen with Rangers, the fiscally fallen Scottish giants, now on the verge of financial ruin? A huge summer sale-off of big contracts (like Bocanegra’s) seems imminent. Not only will Bocanegra need time to change clubs and get himself established at a new address, he’ll need some time off during the summer. And that seems difficult if he’s busy leading the London effort.

Potential resolution: Geoff Cameron or Clarence Goodson.

Assumption: The midfield is solid, so the over-aged spots can be dispersed elsewhere.

Confirmation: Not so much.

The “Mix” was off Saturday, in more ways than one. Canada’s stacked midfield reduced Mix Diskerud’s influence as a linking presence. Further, the midfield never really found its rhythm or basic construction; credit Canada’s diligence and frustrating tactics for some of that.

Jared Jeffrey as the lone holding man never adjusted accordingly, never “found” the game he was in, giving away too many balls and failing to make a difference on the attack.

Potential resolution: Where is the United States’ particularly strong at the full international level? Central midfield. So, Michael Bradley, anyone? For that matter, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu or Kyle Beckerman might move things in the right direction.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.