Four talking points from Manchester City v. Chelsea

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BRONX, NEW YORK – It was another celebratory evening in the world of international soccer exhibitions as Manchester City outscored and Chelsea 5-3 to secure their second straight victory over the Blues in the last three days. Here are four talking points from Saturday’s match.

More of a showcase than a match

Heading into the match it was inherently obvious that both teams would rather be elsewhere. How could they not? It was only one week earlier that they finished a long and hard Premiership season and to make matters worse, they had to play to scrimmages in America while most of their peers relaxed on the beach (or, played in the Champions League final).

But credit to the players of both teams, they put smiles on their faces and provided an entertaining performance. It was a contest that resembled an NBA All-Star match as defending took a back seat to high-octane offense.

Playing on a pitch that couldn’t have been larger than 95 x 55 yards (international pitches are between 110-120 x 70-80), the players spent 95% of the match playing up the spine of the pitch. This made for plenty of 1-2 passes and slip throughs, which, in turn meant goals galore.

It was enjoyable but to classify this as a “soccer exhibition match” seems a bit rich. Perhaps “soccer showcase” would be more appropriate.

Oscar delivers the fluff

Chelsea have some incredibly talented midfielders but perhaps none moreso than Oscar, the 21 year old Brazilian the Blues signed for £25m from Internacional last summer.

The thin playmaker slipped his way throughout the midfield last night, finding whatever space he could to terrorize the City defense. While most players preferred standing on Route 1, Oscar operated in the acres of space on the wings. With devastating foot-skills he repeatedly ran at Pablo Zabaleta and Maicon, forcing the South Americans to back-track into the box to avoid looking silly (which, Maicon frequently did).

Before he was subbed out by Yossi Benayoun in the 67th minute, nearly all of Chelsea’s attacks came through Oscar. He put Fernando Torres through on goal in the 6th minute, provided perfect aerial service to the Spaniard in the 30th, nearly curled in a corner kick in the 34th minute (Joe Hart had to tip it off the bar to prevent it from going in) and swerved one directly onto Demba Ba’s head in the 52nd minute.

And every time Oscar provided service his teammates didn’t need to move or caress the ball because the pass was perfect in every way possible. Forget silver-platter service, Oscar’s delivery is so soft it’s positively fluffy.

Samir Nasri enjoyed himself

Samir Nasri gets a (somewhat deserved) bad rap as both a player and a person.

Part of this stems from his decision to abruptly depart Arsenal and the nurturing hand of Arsene Wenger in favor of the big dollars of Manchester City. Part of this is due to his wildly inconsistent performances for Manchester City. And part of this because Nasri just always has that pissed off French-guy look on his face.

But the fact of the matter is, Nasri is a phenomenal talent and seemingly not half as bad a person as he comes off.

If there were a man-of-the-match on Saturday it would have to be Nasri. The Frenchman danced on the ball and slipped through defenders with childlike delight. His efforts resulted in a brilliant brace that had everyone in attendance picking up their jaw. Both goals were nearly identical cut-ins from the wings that drew Chelsea’s Henrique Hilario off his line, only to be duped by a stabbed back-spinning shot to the far post.

After the match most players, no doubt sick of the same old song and dance walked by journalists without a word. A few did stop to chat (Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Gareth Barry, Micah Richards, Jack Rodwell) but no one gave more time than Nasri. The winger spoke to French media for 10-15 minutes, glowing over the match and his recent naming to the French National Team’s roster after a nearly one year hiatus.

Who knows how long it will last, but it was good to see Nasri once again enjoying himself.

Nathan Ake looked like the real deal

Although his side did concede five goals, Nathan Ake looks like he could be the real deal for Chelsea. The 18 year old went the full 90 for Rafa Benitez’ squad, spending the first half as a left-back before moving into a center-back role in the second stanza.

The Dutchman was one of the few players who kept his focus through the entire 90 minutes. Defensively, he was quite sharp, cutting out numerous through-passes and crosses while making a number of stunning tackles including a second minute thump of Carlos Tevez that stopped the Argentine truck dead in his tracks. Ake got involved offensively as well, getting off two shots of note – one, a 19th minute effort that blazed just wide and the second, a 25 yard rip that skimmed off the top of the bar to end the first half of play.

Given the lax nature of the match, making hard-and-fast predictions would be a mistake but don’t be surprised if, from time-to-time, Ake slides into Chelsea’s back four in 2013-14.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —