Good and not-so-good: Taking inventory of the U.S.’s qualifying week

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Four points in their bag, it’s time for the U.S. to move forward, a process that will involve assessing what they learned from their week of qualifiers. Having gone 180 minutes without allowing a goal, it’s not difficult to find the positives, nor is it hard to nitpick at ta team that didn’t generate many chances.

So let’s take inventory and look at some of the good, not-so-good, and mixed bags from the break that was:

Good

  • Central defense – In each game, the team’s best performers where at the back. Omar Gonzalez replicated his MLS dominance, Clarence Goodson reasserted his place in the pecking order, while Matt Besler’s qualifying debut proved he can perform in the most tense of situations. Particularly once Geoff Cameron can move back in, Jurgen Klinsmann will have a full, viable core of central defenders. That may not be great news for Carlos Bocanegra, but at a spot that’s seen the captain and Oguchi Onyewu diminish in relevance, those are reassuring options.
  • Brad Guzan – Given the lack of work he got during the Costa Rica and Mexico games, I’m not convinced there should be a battle for Tim Howard’s No. 1 shirt; however, if somebody wants to point to Guzan’s work in Birmingham and note the job he did in the second half against Mexico, I’ll point to some iffy moments in the second half against Costa Rica but think “maybe they have a point.”
  • Jermaine Jones – There’s a portion of the U.S. fan base who is never going to like the combative German, and with possibly good reason. But even though he missed Tuesday’s game in Mexico, this was a good week for him. In Colorado, his versatility and experience helped the States’ midfield control a match played under strange conditions, and as his replacement Maurice Edu was ridden off the ball on consecutive second half possessions, you could see where he would have been valuable in Mexico.
  • Depth – It was so long ago you may not remember, but when the U.S.’s squad was named nine days ago, there were legitimate worries as to whether Klinsmann would be able to account for a rash of injuries, particularly at the back. Two games, four points, and no goals allowed later, the U.S. haves shown their system can paper over a lot of holes. When Klinsmann talks about adaptability, that’s it, and given the coach set expanding the player pool as an explicit goal of his tenure with the States, the (formerly?) maligned boss deserves some credit.

Note: We’ll get to Jurgen Klinsmann in another post.

Not-so-good

  • The attack, as a whole – The disappointment of two goals in three games is mitigated by the front-loaded schedule. Early games in Honduras and Mexico were destined to make these early numbers would look skewed. Still, the pure lack of chances has to be disturbing, particularly since the attack was a problem in third round qualifying. The U.S. has become a team that can compete with most opponents while controlling few, a state that’s inevitable when you can’t score goals.
  • Graham Zusi – By the second half at Azteca, Zusi was finally falling back to give Cameron the help he needed. His late header to deal with a Giovanni Dos Santos ball from the endline was one of Tuesday’s highlights. But that play came after a game and a half of being a defensive liability. Bryan Oviedo was able to consistently get past him and onto Cameron in Colorado, while Dos Santos and Andres Guardado were able to get balls in from their left throughout the match in Mexico. Two nice second half plays can’t offset 135 minutes of struggles.
  • Geoff Cameron – Like Zusi, Cameron struggled badly along the U.S.’s right in Colorado. In Mexico, he was much better, but he still left too much room behind him, and when Dos Santos moved through the channel and behind the right back to attack with Guardado and Jorge Torres Nilo, the U.S. struggled. The most disappointing part of Cameron’s performance: Right back is where he plays at club level. Now that Besler has been be tested, you wonder if Cameron’s positional uncertainty (not getting reps in the middle for Stoke) could eventually see him passed on the depth chart.
  • Maurice Edu – He played a part in nice first half movement, and his tracking runners into the back helped the U.S. withstand Mexico’s first half onslaught. But woe, those times he got caught on the ball. And woe, the penalty that should have been. It might be time to consider who else can step in when Jermaine Jones is out. “Dear FIFA: What say you about Osvaldo Alonso?”

Mixed bags:

  • Jozy Altidore – A lot more positives than negatives for Altidore this week. The Costa Rica game was one of his best under Klinsmann, while he played a part in a couple of nice first half movements in Mexico. At some point, the U.S. is going to need more from their first choice No. 9, whomever that may be. But for Altidore, it’s all part of a process of getting where the coach wants him to be.
  • Clint Dempsey – He scored the goal in Colorado and did some decent work in Mexico (feeding Herculez Gomez for an early first half ball that was blocked out for a corner), but the U.S. is still lacking a danger element at their playmaking position. Put simply, there are no plays being made. Dempsey is a resourceful goal scorer, and his experience underneath the striker helps, but the U.S. just isn’t as dangerous as they should be. Dempsey and Altidore need to generate more chances.
  • DeMarcus Beasley – It’s not that DMB was great (though in Colorado, he was pretty close). It’s that he showed he can be an option, something that’s valuable for a pool that has had to ask José Francisco Torres to play left back this cycle. Yes, he was torched in Mexico, but that’s Mexico. If he’s needed against other teams in the group? He might be viable.

Totti out to ‘destroy’ Lazio in what could be his last derby

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MILAN (AP) Roma great Francesco Totti is out to “destroy” Lazio in what could be his last derby.

Totti’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the 40-year-old forward is likely to retire and move upstairs into a director’s role at the club where he has spent his entire career.

“It’s a different match to all the others,” Totti said. “It’s a team you always try to destroy on the field but with the maximum respect.

“For the city, for the curva, for the fans, you always try to give 101 percent. It’s a match you always want to win.”

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Roma won the last derby 3-2 last month but still lost to Lazio in the two-legged Italian Cup semifinals. Totti played less than 10 minutes in each match.

That semifinal defeat still hurts Roma and its fans, which are likely to fill the Stadio Olimpico again after ending a 14-month protest following the removal of deeply unpopular security barriers.

“It will be like all the other derbies, a must-win match,” Totti said. “It’s important because we all remember how the last one finished. We have to get our revenge.”

Sunday’s match is also crucial for the battle for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the group stage of the Champions League.

Roma is currently second, four points ahead of Napoli, which visits Inter Milan on Sunday. The team which finishes third has to go into a playoff for Europe’s premier club competition.

Roma has a more difficult run-in than Napoli. After the derby, it next faces AC Milan and Juventus before ending its season against Chievo Verona and Genoa. Napoli plays Cagliari, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

[ MORE: Henry, Aguero on playing for Pep ]

“It will be a very important derby for the standings and we will try everything to have a great game to bring home the three points,” Totti said. “We are going through this battle for second serenely and calmly, also because now we have a four-point advantage on them.

“There are only a few matches left until the end of the season, even if three out of five are very difficult on paper. We will try everything to finish second.”

Lazio is fourth, seven points behind Napoli.

Totti has been playing for Roma for 25 years – remarkably more than 28 percent of the club’s existence – since making his debut in the final stages of a 2-0 win at Brescia on March 28, 1993.

Totti, who also won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, could have won more than the solitary Serie A title, two Italian Cups and two national Super Cups he claimed with Roma, but he rejected offers of more money and glory to remain with his childhood club.

His face adorns murals and posters across Italy’s capital, where he is loved by Roma fans and respected by supporters of Lazio, despite his antics against them.

Totti has scored 11 times against Lazio and often celebrates these extra-special goals with T-shirts made for the occasion. One famously said, “I have purged you again,” while he revealed another reading simply “Game Over” after a victory in May 2015.

He hit the headlines in January of that year when he scored the second of two goals against Lazio and, in a pre-planned celebration for becoming the all-time leading scorer in the derby, grabbed his phone off Roma’s goalkeeping coach and took a selfie under the Curva Sud with thousands of adoring fans in the background.

In the Eternal City, Totti is Roma’s eternal leader – first made captain in 1998 when he was only 22.

Nike alluded to his “King of Rome” nickname at a promotional event on Wednesday to unveil new gold-colored boots to mark the Roma captain’s 25 years at the club.

Totti, who was greeted by about 200 chanting fans, was instructed to sit on a throne with the steps leading up to it bearing the names of the seven kings of ancient Rome, with his name placed on the final step.

“I have nothing to do with these kings,” Totti said. “I prefer to be judged than to judge.”

Bayern Munich activates clause to make Coman permanent

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Bayern Munich has announced its decision to make Kingsley Coman’s loan from Juventus a permanent move.

Coman, 20, operates as a right wing and striker, and can also play on the left. He’s made 40 Bundesliga appearances with six goals and six assists over two seasons for Bayern.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

It’s a $24 million option, and will bind Coman to Bayern through the 2019-20 season.

From FCBayern.com:

“Kingsley Coman is a crucial player for the future of our team, so we’ve decided to exercise the option,” commented Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge: “Kingsley is a promising player with great potential. We’re convinced he’ll help us in the coming years.”

Coman, Renato Sanches, and Joshua Kimmich are all under the age of 22.

Mourinho has chance to make major statement in Manchester Derby

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The betting market says Man City is more than even money to beat Manchester United, and wagering on the latter to win Thursday’s derby match is a longer shot than the Red Devils finishing in the Top Four (an achievement to be sure).

The worth of those metrics is debatable, but allows a sincere thought: Given their thin depth and the road challenge, a win for Jose Mourinho would be as impressive as almost anything Manchester United has accomplished this season.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Maybe that’s obvious to many of us, but a twirl through the spheres of United supporter social media shows something different. Many Red Devils are confident of their teams’ fortunes in Thursday’s Manchester Derby, with one even predicting a 3-1 win in a comment on the NBC Sports Soccer Facebook page.

That could be an outlier, sure, but shows the demands Manchester United supporters place on their big spending club. United won’t have Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two of the best players in the world, and it’s not as if the club has had time to adjust to their absences. No one has played more minutes for United than Pogba and Ibrahimovic this season.

United is also without Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Phil Jones at the heart of their defense as it attempts to shut down Sergio Aguero and/or Gabriel JesusDavid Silva is a doubt for City, who also may not have John Stones, but Guardiola has options.

How Mourinho attacks — or doesn’t attack — City, and how Guardiola sets up his XI, will be interesting leading into the match, because parking the bus lacks its usual luster given the center back carnage. Will Mourinho trot out Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera in a bid to clog the midfield? Will he run Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as a strike pair?

The answers to these questions and the unlikely event of a United road win may end up shining all over Thursday. And while that win would wind up being overshadowed by United’s finish on the Premier League table and UEFA Europa League, there’s little doubt it would stake a serious claim for Mourinho’s time at United being on the rise.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.