Takeaways from the U.S.’s win in Antigua: States find their hero

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Not even the most ardent Eddie Johnson fan would have predicted the striker, making his first appearance in two years for the national team, would be the man that pulled the U.S. back from its World Cup qualifying ledge, yet that’s exactly what happened Friday night in St. John’s. Taking his comeback to a level nobody could have predicted, Johnson scored both goals in the States’ 2-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda, his 91st header salvaging an otherwise worrisome performance from the United States Men’s National Team.

The U.S. had led for only six minutes – the time between Johnson’s opener and Dexter Blackstock’s 26th minute response. From then on, it was the same, attack-challenged U.S. we’ve come to know under Jurgen Klinsmann.

There was possession but no urgency; intent but no execution; talent but no production.

Had Johnson not redirected home Alan Gordon’s late cross, the U.S. would be in crisis mode. That Klinsmann’s two surprise recalls created the winner is their boss’s only saving grace. His team was lacked urgency, was curiously deployed, and showed no progress from their last disappointing road trip to Kingston.

Few teams in CONCACAF would have lost to the U.S. tonight. Klinsmann is lucky his team was facing one of them.

Here are some quick takeaways:

1. Where was the urgency? – This wasn’t a true must win, but as the coach said mid-week, the team was treating it as such. But if this team was treating this as a all-or-nothing scenario, the U.S. is going to have difficulty making it through The Hex (the next round of CONCACAF qualifying).

With the exception of some fire from Michael Bradley when he was taken down from behind late (a play that should have given the U.S. a penalty kick), the team approached this one with the same business-like approach we’ve seen throughout the tournament. They could have used a lot more passion tonight.

MORE: Did the conditions matter on Friday?

2. U.S. is still not executing in the final third …

3. … and Jurgen Klinsmann bears much of the blame.

It will be interesting to hear Klinsmann’s explanations as to why Johnson spent most of this match wide left. The States generated three good chances for him on crosses, but all too often the Sounders’ No. 9 was seen deep in midfield, tracking back like a traditional midfielder, even if he played like a forward most of the time.

Beyond Johnson’s deployment, the U.S. still doesn’t seem to know what to do with all their possession. We’re seeing very few balls played behind the defense, and those that are tend to be poorly weighted into marginally dangerous spots. We’re not seeing effective runs in the box. We’re not seeing the type of movement and interchanging that opens up space. Aside from a few nice layoffs from Clint Dempsey, we’re not seeing the type of one-touch passing that can navigate compact defenses.

Some of that is personnel. Some of that is performance. Some of that is training, and some of it is tactical.

There are a number of places where solutions could lie, but after another performance where the play far outstretched the goals, the team needs answers.

MORE: Friday a good night for Jozy Altidore? 

4. The central defense remains a work in progress – Both Geoff Cameron and Clarence Goodson were beaten for Antigua and Barbuda’s goal. Cameron allowed his man, Peter Byers, to blow by him, while Goodson slipped getting across the six to mark Blackstock. Twice late, players were able to turn on shots inside the U.S. penalty area, leaving Tim Howard lunging to protect his far post. As Antigua and Barbuda were breaking out into counters late in the match, you couldn’t help but wonder what a World Cup-caliber team would have done to this defense.

Perhaps things would have been different if Fabian Johnson were healthy, allowing Carlos Bocanegra to play in the middle. We should find out on Tuesday.

5. Heroic Eddie Johnson – As the seconds ticked away on a game that looked destined to end in a draw, the U.S. desperately needed a hero. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, perhaps Carlos Bocanegra? One of the core needed to assert himself.

Instead, it was Johnson. Controversial callup, having seen you in two years, “you’re not Jozy” Eddie Johnson.

MORE: PST Man of the Match – Eddie Johnson 2.0

Pealing off his man in the 91st minute into space toward the far post, Johnson subtly volunteered to be that hero. Just as he’d done on the opener, he hammered his header down and across goal, giving goalkeeper Molvin James little chance to preserve a historic result.

One year ago, Johnson was a non-factor for the U.S. After failing to land a place with a club in Mexico, it wasn’t even clear he had a professional future. When he landed in Seattle, he had to start over: New team; new city; no prestige. Everything that got Eddie Johnson to this point has happen in the last seven months.

Now (and all of a sudden), he’s the team’s best goal scoring threat, the man who represents the U.S.’s potential to be a truly dangerous team …

And the one good thing to come out of the States’ trip to Antigua.

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.