Costa Rica v United States - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier

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.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Final preview: Seattle, Toronto battle subzero temps for first Cup

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley walks off the field after a training session, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Toronto, for the MLS Cup soccer championship. Toronto hosts the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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  • First MLS Cup Final for both
  • Sounders all-time 7W-2L-2T
  • TFC joined in 2007, Seattle 2009

It’ll be in the high twenties (-1 Celsius) when Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in Ontario (Kickoff is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT).

Combine the visible breath and slight chance of snow with a BMO Field which has been relentlessly loud throughut TFC’s playoff run, and we have the makings of an all-timer.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS Cup roundtable ]

Toronto and Seattle met up at the same venue on July 2, the 1-1 draw perhaps a bit deflated by the absence of Clint Dempsey for Seattle and TFC’s American duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Seattle superstar Nicolas Lodeiro wasn’t there, either, still weeks away from arriving from Boca Juniors.

This is the second MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, after Colorado defeated FC Dallas in 2010. TFC men Drew Moor and Clint Irwin were part of the championship-winning Rapids in that one.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris greets fans who gathered to send off the team after MLS soccer training, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders were scheduled to travel to Toronto later Wednesday to prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

[ MORE: PST’s Michael Bradley interview ]

Toronto will bring star power to go with a challenging formation; While accolades rightly go to Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco, the Reds’ 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney features versatile wide men in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

Seattle is powered through Nicolas Lodeiro, the ex-Boca Juniors playmaker who has been nearly as effective as Giovinco (albeit with a smaller MLS sample size). Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the ex-TFC man, has been very good at the back, but can the Sounders’ back line handle Altidore and Giovinco?

The metronomes could be the difference. Bradley’s been good for TFC, but Osvaldo Alonso gave an MLS MVP caliber performance this season.

[ MORE: PST talks with Ozzie Alonso ]

What they’re saying

Toronto FC keeper Irwin on the weather: “It’s probably the most difficult part. As a field player, you can move around. You’re warmer, more active. At this point, there’s not much we can do other than bundle up, and I’ll stay moving back there.”

Seattle forward Jordan Morris on Lodeiro“The first thing Lodeiro said to me is, ‘When I get the ball, you just run.’ I think of him like a quarterback.”

Prediction

Look to the engine rooms here. Alonso is a handful and a magnificent passer of the ball. On his day, Bradley is even better. Will it be? Neither player will shirk from pressure. We’re thinking extra time after a 1-1 match. And Toronto’s depth and home field will propel it to a 2-1 win.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Bacary Sagna of Manchester City clears the ball from Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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  • Man City leads all-time 53W-29D-28L
  • Leicester took 4 of 6 pts last season
  • MCFC won previous four

To cure what ails, Leicester City has to knock off one of the top contenders to its Premier League throne: Manchester City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday on NBC and NBCSports.com).

There are some advantages for Leicester, though, as Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero are suspended for their red cards picked up the loss to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola used Pablo Zabaleta next to Fernando in the UCL draw with Celtic, and looks set for the same come Saturday.

Leicester rested the majority of its starters in a 5-0 loss at Porto this week, following up a 2-1 setback at Sunderland that left the champs just two points ahead of the 18th and 19th placed clubs in the PL.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri on the task at hand: “I was waiting for a period like this. Now it’s important to react with a big effort together from the team. That is my focus now. We have to be focused on these matches until Christmas Day. We have to get points. We need points and we have to fight. This part of the season is our key moment. I think every match gives us an opportunity. We have to fight. I repeat, we have to fight.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola on Zabaleta’s positional change“But I think Pablo Zabaleta can play in the middle – he is very experienced and he can play there as he did very well against Celtic. I think in the last years of his career he’ll play more in the middle and it gives us another option.”

Prediction

As much as the injuries hurt Man City, there’s certain harm in the wounded unit that fell 3-1 to Chelsea. We believe the Foxes will strike, but Kelechi Iheanacho has proven more than a suitable fill-in for Aguero. Man City 2-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 15

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Week 15 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 15 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 West Brom – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Leicester City 1-3 Man City – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Swansea City 2-3 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Watford 0-1 Everton – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-1 Middlesbrough – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Man United 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Hull City 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]