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.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.