The World Cup qualifying effort is back on track

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Was it all a bunch of wasted worry? Was all the teeth gnashing, nervous tummy tumbling and nail biting all so unnecessary after all?

The United States’ World Cup qualifying effort, looking unsteady and unbalanced for a few days, is back on solid ground following a 1-0 win over Jamaica in Columbus.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men were dominant for 65 minutes. In fact, dominant doesn’t tell the story as the United States completed a stunning 91 percent of its first half passes against a Jamaican team that sat in a surprisingly passive and defensive crouch. An otherworldly combo of post- and crossbar-rattlers (three of them in the first 45) and spectacular stuff from Reggae Boyz goaltender Dwayne Miller kept the United States out of goal before the break.

(MORE: Highlights from last night’s match)

Finally, Herculez Gomez scored unquestionably his biggest goal in a U.S. shirt – and probably the biggest U.S. goal since Landon Donovan’s late strike against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. That was the breakthrough – and the United States is now tied atop the group once again, along with Guatemala and Jamaica.

(MORE: U.S. Man of the Match, Herculez Gomez)

The job isn’t done, but Klinsmann’s kids do have two winnable matches remaining, at Antigua and Barbuda and then back at home against Guatemala. Both games are in October.

More on those later. For now, here are 10 talking points on Tuesday’s massive win.

1.  – If U.S. fans feel a bit conflicted about this one, it’s about those final 20 minutes, when the United States lost initiative, backing off following the breakthrough goal. Some was down to Jamaica pressing higher, but the response just wasn’t as convincing as it needed to be.

2.  – Clearly not satisfied with his things from last Friday, Klinsmann made five changes in the lineup, introducing Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Danny Williams, Graham Zusi and Jose Torres.

3.  – Check marks on the U.S. side for Geoff Cameron, Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson, Williams, Zusi and Herculez Gomez. All had convincing nights. Cameron’s work was particularly unimpeachable, and Cherundolo was near-perfect against Luton Shelton, a man much faster that the U.S. right back.

4.  – Torres, a polarizing figure among U.S. fans, did nothing like the night he needed. The U.S. left-sided midfielder wasn’t bad – but it simply wasn’t enough in a night of U.S. dominance. And isn’t this (“not enough”) always the story with Torres? Klinsmann even said as much last week. For all the U.S. possession, Torres just never manufactured the big moment in the final third. Zusi, playing Torres’ equal on the opposite side in the U.S. 4-4-2, managed to make things happen in ways Torres never did. Plus, the ball often slows down when it reaches Torres (and Jermaine Jones, too, for that matter.) Torres was removed after 65 minutes. If he was running out of chances before, where does leave him now?

5.  – Jones? What does Klinsmann see in him? Please submit answers to ProSoccerTalk HQ.

6.  – Even before Gomez’s crucial goal, his free kicks were impressive, creating threatening U.S. chances. His first-half ball into Jones (Jones!) was deadeye perfect; The U.S. midfielder whiffed on the header from top of the six-yard box when he had perfect inside position on his man. (Seriously, Jones is still more liability than asset. The only way the United States was ever going to lose was for Jones to do something stupid and red-card worthy. I said on Twitter in the first half that exact thing – and put the chances at 27 percent.)

7.  – The Cherundolo-Zusi combo was flat out devastating in the first 45. They looked like they had been playing together since YMCA soccer in grade school. Zusi had the first U.S. chance, banging one off the cross bar in the 6th minute. Meanwhile, Cherundolo was adding so much more push up the right side that just wasn’t there on Friday.

8.  – Williams was the primary holding man in a 4-4-2 and had his best night in the U.S. shirt by a long way. That shouldn’t be so surprising since that’s his position in Germany; Klinsmann, with a wealth of central midfielders has usually played Williams out wide. I think we just saw that change. If so, one of the usual central midfielders is odd man out, either Jones, Maurice Edu or Kyle Beckerman.

9.  – Not so sharp? Clint Dempsey did what he could, but his touch and timing are clearly not Dempsey-esque. You really have to wonder about the choice to play him all 90 minutes Tuesday, especially after he went all 90 tough minutes on Friday. That man was wiped out by the 60th minute in Columbus by the look of it.

9a.  – Bocanegra was similarly stale. Not bad, just not World Cup qualifier sharp, with a bad choice here and there while bringing the ball out of the back. And he got dragged out of position once, stranding Cameron behind him as Jamaica buzzed in dangerously.

10.  – In the last 20 minutes the United States looked nervous as schoolboys at the junior high dance. Credit for the three points, which was always the bottom line. Still, you’d like to see the American manage things better late, more convincingly nursing home the 1-goal margins. Maybe that’s a nitpick, but it’s not much of one.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday