U.S. crisis update: Let’s take this down to DEFCON 5

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Before we get into this, let’s establish one thing: As far soccer crises go – the type of crises that aren’t crises at all, just figurative language we foolishly lean on to describe different levels of drama – the U.S. was definitely “in crisis.” A must win game combined with open (if anonymous) dissent combined with lingering skepticism of the team’s direction? Yes, that’s a crisis, regardless of whether the game was really must win.

So ahead of the biggest game of the cycle, Tuesday’s match at Azteca, it’s worth asking: Is that team still in crisis?

I think you see where I’m going with this one, but let’s engage the exercise.

There were a number of factors that went into creating last week’s crisis. Consider this a checklist – an inventory of circumstances that need to be present for that crisis to exist:

  • Poor performance in previous game – Despite Honduras’s obvious improvement, nobody was happy with the result in San Pedro Sula. Not with the late breakdown. Not with the stagnant attack. Not even with the amazing bicycle kick Juan Carlos Garcia put in before halftime that’s since been overlooked. Nobody likes spending a month staring at a “0” in the points column.
  • Lingering doubts – For now, let’s set aside the Sporting News’ work and remember there were doubts before anonymous players provided the substance. Does Klinsmann’s approach work? If so, where are the results? Is the U.S. really better off under their new boss?
  • Players falling like flies – Here’s the list of injuries U.S. Soccer identified when Klinsmann chose his squad: “Edgar Castillo (facial fractures), Timmy Chandler (hamstring), Steve Cherundolo (knee), Tim Howard (back), Fabian Johnson (hip), Jonathan Spector (ankle), Jose Torres (hamstring) and Danny Williams (illness).” Of the six defenders called in, three had never appeared in a World Cup Qualifier.
  • High stakes – You have to win your home games, they say. Especially when you’re coming off a loss. Especially when it’s an opponent you’re expected to beat. The fear of the opposite – what the world would be like if they lost – fueled Friday’s urgency.
  • The fuse – No denying: Monday’s report turned up the heat on the team. Some said that was a good thing, that it forced the team to focus, but if Friday went bad, that feature would have stayed in focus. “These are the reasons why they’re losing.”

Now let’s get our minds back on Mexico. Come Tuesday, now many of these elements will still exist?

  • Performance – Scoreboard says? Status: Gone
  • Linger doubts – One night can’t eliminate one-and-a-half years of anxiety. Add a result in Mexico to Friday’s win? Then you’ll have something. Status: Still around
  • Player fitness – The big concern here wasn’t the injuries. It was the solution. What options did Klinsmann have? Friday looked like a decent one. Status: Gone, maybe
  • High stakes – There’s a difference between intense and high stakes. Azteca will be intense, but if the U.S. loses that game, they’ll be fine. Everybody knew the U.S.’s final round schedule was front loaded. Three points in as many games is workable. Status: Gone
  • That fuse – Winning in Colorado doesn’t mean those critiques were unfounded. And it doesn’t mean they go away. But it makes them less important. Now the team has something to offset those concerns. Winning does wonders, etc. Status: Defused.

Even the best teams can find themselves in a faux crisis. Who knows when the U.S. will find one again. But faced with the biggest adversity of the Klinsmann era, the team responded.

If I remember my Wargames correctly, the military use a threat readiness/alert system called DEFCON. “1” means we’re on the verge of nuclear war. When Kim Jong-un’s having beer on the White House porch, we’re definitely at “5”.

Sitting second in the standings with three points through two games, let’s take the U.S.’s DEFCON from 2 to 5.  Everybody can chill out.

This crisis is over, but let’s conjure our inner cynic: “I can already see the next one.”

WATCH LIVE: West Brom vs. Manchester United

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The Hawthorns is the scene as Manchester United attempts to pull back into sole possession of second place on the Premier League table with a visit to West Bromwich Albion (Watch live at 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Baggies have several regular starters on the bench, with Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, and Gareth McAuley (Allllll the Gareths!) getting a rest.

United will hand starts to Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, with Anthony Martial on the bench with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

LINEUPS

West Bromwich Albion: Foster; Nyom, Hegazi, Evans, Gibbs, Krychowiak, Yacob, Livermore, Burke, McClean, Rondon. Subs: Myhill, Robson-Kanu, Brunt, Barry, Rodriguez, McAuley, Field.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Young, Herrera, Matic, Mata, Lingard, Rashford, Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Rojo, Shaw, McTominay, Ibrahimovic, Martial.

Report: Luiz done at Chelsea, perhaps as soon as January

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A report out of England says Chelsea defender David Luiz could be out the door in January.

Luiz, 30, has a knee injury and has played in just one match for Chelsea since a Halloween loss to Roma in the Champions League, one that supposedly culminated in a blow-up between the defender and manager Antonio Conte.

He was sold once before by Chelsea, shipped to Paris Saint-Germain for $66 million in 2014 before returning to Stamford Bridge in 2016 for $45 million.

[ MAN CITY-SPURS: 3 things |  Studs and duds ]

Luiz has made just one appearance, a Nov. 22 match in Qarabag, since that Roma loss. He returned to the bench against Liverpool before being diagnosed with a knee injury.

The report says Juventus is a possible destination for Luiz, though the Champions League could be a problem for both sides. Luiz is Cup-tied to Chelsea, and Juventus remains in the UCL as well.

And Chelsea would need reinforcements at the back. It’s back three has operated with Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Gary Cahill. Other options are Antonio Rudiger and 20-year-old Jake Clarke-Salter, which would be fine were Chelsea not alive in four competitions (The League Cup quarterfinals have the Blues hosting Bournemouth on Wednesday).

The power seems a bit more in Luiz’s hands thanks to some of Conte’s sanctioned loans. Kurt Zouma has arguably been Stoke City’s most consistent performer in an under siege unit, one of 10 backs on season-long loans. The most sense is to find reconciliation, presuming the dust-up is real, and move on in the summer if necessary.

Serie A: Inter’s unbeaten start ends; Hamsik equals Maradona

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan’s unbeaten start to the season was brought to an unlikely end Saturday as the Nerazzurri were defeated 3-1 at home by Udinese and went on to lose top spot in Serie A.

Inter captain Mauro Icardi had canceled out Kevin Lasagna’s opener but Udinese put in an impressive second-half performance and took the lead through Rodrigo De Paul’s penalty before Antonin Barak sealed the result.

Napoli moved two points above Inter and back into the lead after winning 3-1 at Torino, with Marek Hamsik matching Diego Maradona’s scoring record.

“We’re obviously disappointed to have lost,” Inter coach Luciano Spalletti said. “Maybe it hurts a bit more because it’s been a bit of time since our last defeat and we’re not used to it anymore.

“It’s nothing to do with tiredness. The players seemed physically fine to me even in the second half when we made a lot of mistakes. The difference was we played the ball badly in the second half and made a lot of silly mistakes.”

Udinese moved 10 points clear of the relegation zone as its revival under new coach Massimo Oddo continued. Oddo has won three league matches after losing to Napoli in his opening game.

“What has changed since my arrival? No one has a magic wand. We do our work but then it’s the lads who go out onto the pitch,” Oddo said. “There’s still a lot of work to do but we are taking giant steps.

“This team never gives up and always gives everything … I think that winning at San Siro against Inter, which was first and unbeaten, is more due to how good my team was and not that Inter played badly.”

Udinese took the lead in the 14th minute when Silvan Widmer cut inside from the right, dribbled in the area and rolled the ball across for Lasagna to tap in.

However, Inter was back on level terms within a minute as Icardi volleyed home Antonio Candreva’s cross.

Inter dominated the rest of the first half and came close to taking the lead on several occasions but Oddo turned things around at the break, and it was Udinese which was stronger in the second period.

The visitors almost took the lead immediately after the restart but Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic somehow managed to deflect Lasagna’s effort over the bar from point-blank range.

Icardi also came close to doubling his tally but he headed a corner over the bar.

Minutes later Udinese was awarded a penalty for handball – after video review showed the ball had not crossed the line before Widmer’s cross was handled by Davide Santon.

De Paul sent his spot-kick straight down the middle to give Udinese the lead in the 61st.

Milan Skriniar almost leveled shortly after but his header came off the bar.

Udinese wrapped up all three points 13 minutes from time when Barak finished off a brilliant counterattack by heading in Jakub Jankto’s cross.

Marek Hamsik matched Diego Maradona’s all-time record of 115 goals for Napoli.

Hamsik reached that tally after 30 minutes on Saturday, scoring the third goal in Napoli’s 3-1 win at Torino.

Dries Mertens controlled the ball in the area and picked out Hamsik, who volleyed into to top right corner.

It has taken the Slovenia midfielder 11 seasons and 477 appearances to reach that tally, while Maradona, who was a forward, set that mark in 259 games in seven seasons with Napoli.

Kalidou Koulibaly had headed Napoli into the lead in the fourth minute and Piotr Zielinski doubled the visitors’ tally in the 25th.

Andrea Belotti netted a consolation for Torino shortly after the hour mark.

Federico Fazio scored a stoppage-time goal to help fourth-place Roma beat Cagliari 1-0 and remain four points behind Napoli.

The Argentine knew little about the goal, however, as Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno attempted to punch clear a free kick and it ricocheted off Fazio’s stomach and into the back of the net.

Cragno had earlier saved Diego Perotti’s weak penalty after the goalkeeper had fouled Edin Dzeko.

Video review was used on both incidents.

La Liga: Torres lifts Atleti into 2nd, just 3 points behind Barca

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Fernando Torres’ first goal in the Spanish league this season gave Atletico Madrid a hard-fought 1-0 win over Alaves on Saturday and lifted the club into second place behind Barcelona.

Torres broke the deadlock five minutes after going on in the 69th with Atletico’s attack stifled by Alaves’ well-positioned defense.

Diego Simeone’s team took advantage of Valencia’s 2-1 loss at Eibar as Atletico moved two points ahead of its title rival. Barcelona is three points ahead of Atletico before hosting Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.

“We didn’t have many chances to win the match, but were always in charge. The entry of (Angel) Correa, (Yannick) Carrasco and, especially, Torres gave us that extra bit that we needed to get the win,” Simeone said. “There is still a long way to go in the league. We only look toward our next game and keep trying to improve.”

Torres, a former Liverpool and Chelsea striker, made his run forward in sync with Sime Vrsaljko’s cross from the right flank before sliding to redirect the ball home with his left foot.

At 33 years old, Torres has had to settle for a role as a reserve player behind regular starters Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro. His goal was his first in any competition this campaign other than the brace he scored against Elche in the Copa del Rey.

Torres’ goal comes just before the arrival of even more competition in Atletico’s attack. Diego Costa and Victor “Vitolo” Machin will join the club in January when its ban on incorporating new players expires.

“I am happy for the goal that came after working so that the coach would play me,” Torres said. “Now I just have to keep at it to get more minutes.”

Despite its failure to reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Atletico is as sound as ever in the domestic competition where it is unbeaten through 16 rounds and has won four in a row.

Atletico’s unbeaten streak in La Liga stretches back 20 matches to last season since its loss at Villarreal on April 25.


Valencia took another blow to its surprise challenge for the league lead after losing its second consecutive away game.

Valencia forward Santi Mina equalized in the 57th to cancel out Takashi Inui’s opener for Eibar just after halftime.

But Eibar midfielder Joan Jordan powered in a header from a cross by Ivan Alejo to grab the 2-1 victory for the hosts with three minutes remaining.

The absence of suspended striker Simone Zaza and injured midfielder Carlos Soler showed as Valencia again dropped points away from its Mestalla Stadium. Valencia’s 1-0 defeat at Getafe two rounds ago ended its unbeaten season.

“We didn’t have the scoring touch we needed to take the lead and they took advantage of our inability to finish,” Valencia coach Marcelino Garcia Toral said. “I don’t recall any other chances for Eibar other than the ones they turned into goals. We have to congratulate them for the win, but a draw would have been fair.”

After only one win in the first eight rounds, Eibar has won four and drawn one to rise to seventh place and in contention for a Europa League berth.