United States v Mexico - International Friendly

Oh, heavens! Who will start along the U.S. back line Friday?

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Tempting though it is to draw a big red circle around the severely thinned U.S. defense and say, “Only Jurgen Klinsmann knows what the American back four will piece together in two qualifiers ahead,” there’s a harder truth to consider here:

The U.S. manager probably doesn’t know either.

But he’ll sort it out over the coming days; next week’s match in Mexico is really just for “bonus points;” no one expects to go into Azteca and get a result, although Jamaica just showed it can be done.

BUT! Friday’s contest in Costa Rica is a must-have for all the reasons we have talked about. Long story short, if Klinsmann’s team ties or loses Friday outside Denver, his boys are staring at the very ugly, and all-too-real possibility that the United States national team will have one or no points after three matches in final round World Cup qualifying – a fine Brazilian pickle, if only for the blow in confidence and the fan and media outrage sure to follow.

The U.S. effort to reach a seventh consecutive World Cup would then hang in the balance.

(MORE: Klinsmann discusses roster on national teleconference) 

Back to the battered back line …

Not to put too fine of a panicked point on this thing, but the six defenders named to Klinsmann’s 23-man roster have a total of 12 World Cup qualifier matches of experience. Half of those are from Geoff Cameron, and he was barely on the team at this point one year ago.

Still, the center back situation is not dire. It’s still young, as noted, but talented.

Cameron (pictured) and Omar Gonzalez, Klinsmann’s preferred pairing until further notice, apparently, is available. Matt Besler is untested in qualifiers but held up in the January U.S. camp. Clarence Goodson is a veteran with plenty of experience; he’s not a world-beater, but you know what you’ll get with Goodson, and that’s pretty solid at home against Costa Rica.

But would Klinsmann move Cameron to the outside, where he plays with Stoke City?

If so, would Maurice Edu dropped into a center back spot, where he’s played before. (A little less likely with the late injury news to Danny Williams, which thins the central midfield corps.)

As it stands, Tony Beltran and Justin Morrow are the only natural fullbacks on the U.S. roster. Morrow is a left back, and that looks like the particularly interesting position. There are plenty of options, although they are all highly imperfect.

(MORE: Injury dented U.S. roster announced Monday)

Brek Shea has played as a left back previously, although hardly extensively. DaMarcus Beasley has filled the role at national team level. Both are on the roster just announced.

Or Klinsmann could throw down a wildcard, the way he did with Jose Torres last year against Antiqua and Barbuda. Torres was effective as an attack-minded outside presence in that one. Clearly, however, Costa Rica is not Antiqua and Barbuda; the Ticos will demand far greater defensive attention.

There is one combination (but only one) available from this roster that would have played together as a foursome. Beltran, Gonzalez, Besler and Morrow started in a January friendly against Canada.

Given that such a foursome would mean excluding Cameron, the second-most experienced back line man at this point – And hows about that! – such an arrangement seems unlikely. Translation: a high probability occurrence of a U.S. back line that has never played together. That is hardly ideal.

In fact, we just saw one of those down in Honduras … everyone remember the defensive fiasco where that one fell to pieces?

The subplot here is Carlos Bocanegra’s absence from Monday’s roster. It’s fair to ask if Bocanegra could assist  here? He has, after all, been a starting center back and left back at international level for a decade.

There’s really no getting around this one. There can be but one reason Klinsmann declined to select the veteran of English, Scottish, French and German leagues (not to mention MLS): The manager believes his former captain’s speed and/or skills have declined to the point that he simply cannot be effective at top level anymore.

UEFA Champions League final preview — Madrid’s finest Real or Atleti?

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 27:  Diego Simeone head coach of Atletico Madrid looks on during an Atletico de Madrid training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 27, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final isn’t quite the unstoppable force against the immovable object — Real’s defense is good and Atleti has plenty of attacking intent — but it’s fair if you’re expecting the Madrid Derby final to be Diego Simeone’s diligent defenders attempting to counter Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s potent attack.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed ]

Simeone’s built his name on tight teamwork, and La Liga teams broke Atleti down a mere 18 times in 38 matches this season. Before you crow about the weakness of Spain’s top flight from top to bottom, Real only managed a single goal against Atleti in a 1-1 draw that came at the Vicente Calderon. Atleti triumphed 1-0 at the Bernabeu to take four of six points from their derby mates.

But this is the big one, and a rematch of the late thriller we saw in the 2014 final. That’s when Diego Godin’s 36th minute goal came within seconds of being the difference, only for Sergio Ramos to net in stoppage time and Real to score three goals in extra time for a 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Torres ready for “game of my life” ]

Ronaldo will be fine to go, which is obviously bad news for Atleti. While his goal at the end of the 2014 final was just chiseled-ab window dressing, he has scored in both of his UCL finals (He scored for Manchester United in the 26th minute of their 2008 defeat of Chelsea).

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The beauty of Atleti’s defense is how well it springs into the attack, with Godin and Filipe Luis both capable of providing offense.

But really, with respect to Gabi and Antoine Griezmann… that defense! Atleti allowed three goals in the group stage, and just seven across its 12 UCL matches.

How will Simeone aim to stop Real this time around? Will it be banks of four or five, with Torres and Griezmann waiting to strike on a fleet-footed counter? That could serve their disciplined unit well, but something tells me Simeone has something special cooked up for this much-anticipated rematch, and manager is a distinct edge for Atleti against a still-learning Zinedine Zidane.

As an aside, Griezmann has been fantastic, scoring 32 times this year with seven coming in the UCL. Torres is second in scoring, with 12.

Championship playoff preview: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Hull City

DERBY, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 14:  Eldin Jakupovic of Hull City celebrates as Andrew Robertson of Hull City scores their third goal during the Sky Bet Championship Play Off semi final first leg match between Derby County and Hull City at the iPro Stadium on May 14, 2016 in Derby, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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One is hoping to rejoin the Premier League at the first time of asking, while the other to see its first top flight action since 2000 with a win in Saturday’s promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

Hull City did not make the top flight from its inception in 1904 until winning the playoffs in 2008. Since, the Tigers have spent a pair of 2-season stints in the Premier League.

Sheffield Wednesday, for its part, spent nine seasons in the top tier from 1991-2000, but fell as low as League One in the 21st century before a run to the playoffs this season.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Hull’s stingy defense allowed 35 goals this season, tied for the second-best mark in the league, while scoring the fourth-most goals (69). The Tigers finished in fourth place to Wednesday’s sixth, and the sides drew 0-0 at Hull and 1-1 in the reverse fixture.

Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez was far and away Hull’s most deadly scorer, notching 21 goals in the Championship this season, while Sam Clucas paced the club with 8 assists.

Wednesday’s scoring was paced by former Watford attacker Fernando Forestieri’s 15 goals. Veteran Gary Hooper added 13 for the Owls, who got a team-best eight assists from Ross Wallace.

It’s the “richest game in sports”, and kicks off at Noon ET Saturday.

Sturridge injured again, Rashford set for England debut

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GATESHEAD, England (AP) England striker Daniel Sturridge has picked up another injury, potentially affecting his chances of being selected for the European Championship.

England manager Roy Hodgson says Sturridge has a calf injury that has prevented him from training and is a doubt to play in the warmup match against Australia on Friday. Hodgson has until Tuesday to finalize his 23-man squad for the tournament in France.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Sturridge has been beset by injury problems in recent years.

His latest injury increases the possibility of 18-year-old Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford‘s fairytale season being extended to include Euro 2016.

Hodgson said Thursday that Rashford will make his debut against Australia in Sunderland – as a starter if Sturridge isn’t fit. Rashford only made his United debut in February.

Ex-Leicester boss Pearson hired by Derby County

Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC
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Nigel Pearson lives.

The combustible former manager of Southampton, Hull City and Leicester City will now lead Derby County in the hopes of Premier League promotion.

Derby has been on the edge of promotion to the Premier League for several seasons, but neither Steve McClaren and Darren Wassall could do the trick.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Enter Pearson, 52, who has been hired on a three-year deal. It’s his first stop since a roller coaster ride saw him guide Leicester into the Premier League, only to be fired in the aftermath of some players being involved in a racist sex tape incident on a tour of Thailand.

This was after a bizarre season that saw him put his hands on an opposing player’s throat, call a journalist an ostrich, and ultimately save Leicester from the drop.

From Derby County’s site:

“I am honoured to be named as the Manager of Derby County, which is one of the biggest clubs in the country, a club in excellent shape and one with strong ambitions. It is firmly focused on achieving Premier League football.

“I will give absolutely everything I have to this role and do all I can to bring exciting, entertaining and winning football which our supporters can be proud of.”

At the very least, the Rams will be interesting to watch next season.