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.

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.

New Zealand 0-4 Portugal: Ronaldo, Portugal win Group A

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New Zealand gave the 2017 Confederations Cup all they had, but they go home empty-handed as Portugal won the Group A finale 3-0 to advance to the knockout round.

Portugal held much of the possession as expected, but they found little at the end early on. The first true chance fell to Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute, who latched onto a Ricardo Quaresma cross from wide right and produced a powerful header, but it was poorly directed straight to New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic for the easy save.

[ RECAP: Mexico eliminates Russia with 2-1 comeback ]

Ronaldo had another headed chance minutes later, but he rocketed the attempt back off the post. Portugal would eventually find the opener just past the half-hour mark via the penalty spot. Danilo was clearly shoved by a pair of defenders on a set-piece, and Ronaldo easily dispatched the spot-kick for a 1-0 lead.

The favorites would double their lead just a few minutes later as Eliseu on the overlap came down the left flank and cut horizontally into the box. He fed a charging Bernardo Silva, and the in-demand Monaco attacker jumped to meet it and poked home. Silva was unable to celebrate after turning his ankle heavily on the landing, but he would come back onto the field.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Portugal finished things off with 10 minutes to go in the game as Andre Silva burst through the midfielder, shucked his defender, and fired past Marinovic to seal the game for good. Nani added a fourth The win means Portugal finishes level on points with Mexico at the top of Group A, winning the group on goal differential thanks to Silva’s final goal.

Mexico 2-1 Russia: Comeback seals semifinal place

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Mexico again produced a poor first half, but were saved in the final 45 minutes as Juan Carlos Osorio led the CONCACAF squad to the semifinals of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Right off the bat, there was a controversial moment. Just five minutes into the game, Yuri Zhirkov burst into the Mexico box and went to ground under a challenge from Hector Moreno. The referee waved play on, but it appeared on replay that Moreno tripped Zhirkov. Nevertheless, no call was made and no word came from the video assistant referee.

[ RECAP: Portugal eases by New Zealand 4-0 ]

The hosts had another huge penalty shout, but the referee again waved play on as Fedor Smolov was sent flying to ground as Nestor Araujo contacted his leg from behind in the 17th minute. After about a minute of play, the VAR called for a review, but even after a look at the monitor, the referee decided there was not obvious reason to reverse the call.

With Russia applying all the pressure, they would find the breakthrough in the 25th minute. A pair of fantastic saves from Memo Ochoa went for naught as Alexandr Erokhin whiffed, but he was able to find Aleksandr Samedov who struck low past Ochoa for the opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The lead wouldn’t last long. Mexico didn’t exactly seem sparked by the deficit, but they would draw back level against the run of play just past the half-hour mark. It appeared that Nestor Araujo’s looping header was meant to set up a teammate at the far post, but it ended up chipping Igor Akinfeev and tucking inside the woodwork for the equalizer.

After halftime, Mexico scored completely out of nowhere. A bombed clearance out of the back by Hector Herrera seemed an easy collect for Akinfeev, but as the ball bounced high up into the air, Hirving Lozano charged it down and headed the ball under feeble pressure from the Russian goalkeeper. The ball bounced unchallenged into the net, and Mexico took a shock 2-1 lead.

Mexico appeared to have a third to pad the lead, but VAR took 34 seconds to correctly reverse the call as replay spotted goalscorer Hector Moreno in an offside position on the delivery. Russia was doomed to defeat when Zhirkov was given a second yellow card for a clear elbow to the face of Miguel Layun. Somehow, the hosts still had one big chance in the 72nd minute despite the disadvantage, but Igor Smolinkov somehow missed the net on what should have been a tap-in.

The win for Mexico sees them into the knockout stage, but they fail to win the group, finishing level with Portugal on 7 points but coming up short on goal differential by one. Mexico will be without Andres Guardado in the semifinals, as he was shown his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half.

Report: Arsenal owner calls Bellerin to state intentions

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According to a report by Spanish radio station Cadena SER, Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke has personally called defender Hector Bellerin to tell the Spaniard he would not be sold.

The 22-year-old experienced a serious regression at the Emirates last season, and with media speculation surrounding his potential departure, Kroenke wanted to make sure his intentions were clear. Reports had linked Bellerin with a return to his home country, most notably to Barcelona.

With Bellerin under contract through 2021 having just signed his extension last summer, it’s clear the club has decided who they believe keeping should be a priority.

The defender lost his place briefly down the stretch run last season, finding himself on the bench in seven of the club’s final 17 Premier League matches. Despite that, Arsenal still clearly values Bellerin’s talent and durability and hope to ward Barcelona’s interest off. Bellerin didn’t help cool speculation when he bought a house in Barcelona just a short time ago.

Reports say that Arsenal would not take any less than $57 million for their right-back.