Klinsmann’s picks: Sure seems like the coach got a lot right on Friday

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For a lineup that had so many uncertainties before kickoff in Commerce City, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sure seemed to get a lot of things right last night. From the patchwork backline, to the formation, to the midfield alignment to the forwards, everything seemed to work, as much as a roster missing so many of its regulars can work.

Let’s start at the back

Brad Guzan was fine for the most part, but that was the easy one. With Tim Howard out, the Aston Villa No. 1 was the obvious choice, and while some early second half forays away from his line drew some gasps from the American faithful, Guzan was otherwise reliable. He was sure-handed, confident. He was expected what everybody expected.

We knew Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron would start at the back. The question was where. Gonzalez was going to start in the middle, but electing to go with experience instead of injecting Tony Beltran, Klinsmann pushed Cameron to right back. It’s not a spot he’s used to with the national team, but he plays there with Stoke.

It was a safe choice, one that allowed Clarence Goodson to start a left-center half. It also allowed Klinsmann to get his most experienced defense on the field.

In truth, Cameron wasn’t that good. His distribution was poor and he did little to prevent Bryan Oviedo from being Costa Rica’s most dangerous player. Part of that was the weather, and part of Oviedo’s success was on Graham Zusi, but it was still a patchy performance from the Potter.

But there we no major errors. For a team protecting a 1-0 lead for most of the night, that was the biggest thing. Those Oviedo crosses could have proved painful (especially a first half ball that fell for Bryan Ruiz), but ultimately, Cameron’s growing experience outweighed his errors.

The revelation at defense was DeMarcus Beasley, who was having trouble getting called in at all before starting at left back. His night looked like it would end early when he went face-to-head with Omar Gonzalez, but the Puebla midfielder recovered to have one of the States’ better nights. Whether he holds up at Azteca is another matter entirely, but after for one night, DMB gave U.S. fans reason to think he’s got left back covered.

And he also revitalized his chances of getting to cap No. 100. In all likelihood, Beasley will reach appearance 99 Tuesday at Azteca.

source: APMidfield balance

With Danny Williams out, Klinsmann could have inserted Kyle Beckerman or Maurice Edu and maintain his tendency to select three players who normally play deep in midfield. But in a must win game at home, it was no surprise that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones (right) were asked to do the job by themselves.

The slight surprise may have been the depliyment. We think of Michael Bradley as the midfielder most capable of getting forward, and on Clint Dempsey’s goal, he showed how he can contiribute without ever touching the ball. But for most of the night, Bradley was the deeper of the two, sitting deep to act as a fulcrum.

Jones was allowed to do what he does best – roam, disrupt, use his strength and athleticism to be as annoying as possible. In attack, that gave the U.S. a player to act as an outlet just inside the final third. In the buildup, it allowed the U.S. to patiently kick it around while the Costa Ricans trudged through the snow.

Add in Clint Dempsey’s contributions dropping into the void above the pivot, and the midfield struck a perfect balance. That perception was aided by the early goal, Costa Rica’s five-man defense, the field conditions, home field advantage, and the U.S.’s inherent edge in midfield talent, but the result’s enough to bolster opinion that Klinsmann needs to stick with two, not three, defensively-inclined midfielders.

Attack did enough

Jozy Altidore had one of his better nights of the Klinsmann era. His holdup play was excellent, and Costa Rica seemed to lack the willingness or personnel to compete for the long balls coming out of the States’ end. With a strong work rate and improved off-the-ball movement, Altidore is starting to improve on the qualities that made him an iffy fit before.

Herculez Gomez got the call on the left ahead of Eddie Johnson, a decision that’s more difficult to judge. Gomez was fine, and his experience seemed valuable as he shunned the weather and got to work. On set pieces and with the ball at his feet, Gomez offers a bit more, and his work rate is always among the team’s best. But it’s not difficult to image Johnson being as effective, if in a different way.

source: Getty ImagesOn the other flank, Graham Zusi (right) was a non-factor in attack and a detriment tracking Oviedo, but it’s hard to fault Klinsmann for this selection. In what the coach had labeled a must win game, Zusi’s recent successes were always likely to earn Klinsmann’s nod. Gomez could have started on the right while Johnson played on the left, but on a day when possession was going to be important, you can see why Zusi got the call.

On Tuesday, however? It’s hard to feel that confident about that right side matching up against Andres Guardado and Jorge Torres Nilo, particularly when Mexico scored each of their Friday goals while attacking the defense’s right. Klinsmann may have no better defensive option than Cameron, but for that flank to work, Zusi will have to be better running back toward goal.

And then there’s Dempsey, who was never not going to start, but the main issues with “Deuce” as a No. 10 had been his ability to keep the play moving. For both club and country, there’s been a tendency so slow play down outside the final third rather than build momentum. Positionally, a supporting striker’s role allows Dempsey to do the kind of penalty area poaching that made the difference last night, but when that role requires a No. 10’s flare in a 4-2-3-1, Dempsey’s limitations are exposed.

In the snow of Colorado, those limitations were equalized. Everybody became a player who had trouble building momentum. It wasn’t even worth trying. Smart, well-hit passes that actually got to your teammates became more important, and in that environment, Dempsey’s strengths stood out. Putting him in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 proved a valuable focal point for a team that needed to hog the ball.

Credit the coach

Nobody was surprised by Friday’s selection, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t significant choices to make. And it looks like Klinsmann made all the right ones. The right side could have been better, but you could see the coach’s logic. And in the choice of formation, midfield selection, promotion of Beasley, and putting Dempsey (back) in a No. 10’s role, Klinsmann seemed to get it right.

Not a bad a frying pan performance for the scrutinized boss.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.