Talking center backs: Cameron, Onyewu or Goodson in Friday’s World Cup qualifying opener?

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TAMPA, Florida – Trusty captain Carlos Bocanegra will surely patrol his usual beat, left center back, as World Cup qualifying opens here.

But picking Bocanegra’s partner looms as one of Jurgen Klinsmann’s crucial decisions ahead of Friday’s meeting with Antigua & Barbuda – if “crucial” is a word we can use when talking about tiny Antigua & Barbuda, a two-island speck on the CONCACAF map. But never mind that; this is World Cup qualifying, a.k.a. “business time.”

Three tune-up friendlies saw three different central partners for Bocanegra. The choices are hardly dire; this isn’t U.S. left back circa 2008. It’s just that none are “go-to” guys ideal for the part. The case files for and against Klinsmann’s trio of choices:

Geoff Cameron: Klinsmann kept talking up the Houston Dynamo man, doing so even after pulling Cameron from the starting lineup after his night against Scotland. That evening included an own goal and a couple of the occasional positioning blips that we sometimes get from Cameron. His instincts as a center back, not quite honed to an international edge after all those years in the midfield, sometimes nick him.

But if Cameron can get a handle on that, he’s got everything else Klinsmann could want in a center back: range, adequate speed, long legs perfect for dislodging and disposing, aerial ability, and toughness. What he has most: ability to pass as sharply from center back spot as anyone in the U.S. player pool this side of Tim Ream.

That ability to move the ball forward, quickly and precisely, might be just what the U.S. needs against teams that sit back in heavy numbers – and a lot of that is out there in qualifiers ahead.

All three men can pass; Cameron is the one who passing might actually constitute a threat.

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Oguchi Onyewu: Was he just a victim of unfortunate timing? The big U.S. center back had the toughest assignment of the trio, attempting to corral the quick-footed and quicker-thinking Brazilians. So perhaps it’s little wonder that he looked beyond his element alongside Bocangera during last week’s 4-1 loss to the five-time world champs. The problem, of course, is that last week’s wobble wasn’t unfamiliar. I count just one good start from Onyewu (last fall against Ecuador) since that devastating knee injury late in 2009.

That’s coming up on three years now. So perhaps we ask a lot for Onyewu to stride confidently into the breach at highest level right now. Clearly, Brazil (even its slightly watered down version) is tha game at “highest level.”

For now, perhaps Onyewu’s best use falls under “spot starter,” strategically deployed against opponents who rely on a bigger, powerful striker, a la Panamanian frontrunner Blas Perez. “Young and fast” just is a good pairing for Onyewu at present.

Clarence Goodson: Last week I asked Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. center back, why Goodson doesn’t garner more mentions in conversations of potential U.S. starters. (This was before Goodson’s first XI appearance Sunday against Canada.)

Lalas’ best guess: doubts perhaps linger because Goodson has yet to play club ball at elite level. His league games in Denmark aren’t hamburger, but they aren’t Grade A prime, either. And that makes some sense as a theory, helping explain why Goodson may need to consistently do more just to tread water in the depth pool, to stay even with someone like Onyewu, whose resume is dotted with better club addresses.

I agree with Lalas about the perception that Goodson hasn’t played “big boy soccer,” but it’s misguided. Because games in the Danish Superliga aren’t that far behind games in Scotland or Portugal. And I doubt they’d play second fiddle in quality to MLS.

Klinsmann may not believe so either, especially after Sunday’s Man of the Match evening from Goodson against a motivated Canadian team, one that always seems to bring its best against the United States.

If Klinsmann is just evaluating each man’s 90-minute sample over the last two weeks, it looks like a fairly simple call: it’s Goodson on Friday in Tampa as World Cup qualifying for 2014 begins.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”