Frailty and fragility: young U.S. defense exposed in 4-2 loss to Belgium

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The summation of spring events for a young, rebuilding U.S. back line is the very disquieting “one step forward, one step back.”

All the good work in the snow of Denver and the cauldron of Azteca, two enormously valuable shutouts in  World Cup qualifying, weren’t exactly washed away amid the Belgian foursome, but no one can feel good about a night of sliced and diced regression in Cleveland. One of Europe’s rising powers cut up a young U.S. back line, reminding manager Jurgen Klinsmann and his team that rebuilding a rear guard smack in the middle of a World Cup qualifying cycle is risky business, indeed.

Belgium’s 4-2 win laid bare all the defensive frailties, the communication issues, the limitations of the (hopefully) emerging crop of current center backs, the lack of depth that required Geoff Cameron playing out wide, the slow reactions all the way around, etc.

Ironically, the top defender was DaMarcus Beasley, the converted winger. He was identified as the biggest potential problem by fans and media before Wednesday’s muggy night at FirstEnergy Stadium; but the man earning his 100th cap was the least of the U.S. rear guard in disarray.

Two important caveats here: It’s just a friendly, and we can never assign too much value, good or bad, to results that don’t matter. And certainly this: Belgium is for reals. The midfield looked like men-against-boys stuff as a U.S. team missing its brain, Michael Bradley, mostly couldn’t cope. Plus, we’ll be hearing about this fabulous Belgian crop of attacking midfielders, spry flankers and powerful forwards for years.

That said, the U.S. defensive errors are alarming, to say the least. (And Germany is up on Sunday. Yikes!)

Everyone but Beasley looked bad as the visitors took an early lead, leaving U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard screaming in frustration.

(MORE: Belgium takes apart mistake-prone United States, 4-2)

Cameron, Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson were all painfully slow to react as Romelu Lukaku slipped through, only to be foiled by the onrushing Howard.  That “leak” was bad enough; the communication just wasn’t sharp enough all night between the defenders as they tried to pinpoint the big, physical and surprisingly slippery Lukaku and the outside-to-inside runs of Belgium’s wide men, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin De Bruyne.

When Howard couldn’t hold the ball, he needed help from … well, anyway. Gonzalez and Cameron were nearby spectators. Goodson was even more culpable, having stopped completely to wave about for the offside call. Had he simply followed the play, protecting Howard’s vacated goal, Goodson surely could have been the hero, rescuing the moment.

Was it a mistake to replace Matt Besler, who had replaced the injured Goodson for the result in Mexico? We’ll see on Sunday.

The second goal started with Brad Davis’ turnover and ended on the easiest of finishes for Christian Benteke  – with Gonzalez’s giant booboo forming the meat of this mud sandwich.

Gonzalez’s options as he intercepted a ball near replacement goalie Brad Guzan included shielding Benteke to create an easy Guzan scoop, or crushing the ball well off into the Cleveland night. Instead, he chose to play out on the dribble, and his heavy touched turned into absolute disaster.

source: Getty Images

This is where Gonzalez must grow. He is so physically dominant in league play that he doesn’t always have to “think” his way around the game. In international play, he will live or die by combining the functional brain with the brawn.

The third goal came off a corner kick – but go back to how that set piece was created. The back line was all kinds of out of shape as another turnover happened along the left, with Lukaku quickly finding himself with inside position on Goodson, who was miles away from his central partner Gonzalez. Guzan could only parry the big striker’s shot for a corner – and further disaster ensued on Marouane Fellaini’s far post header.

Klinsmann stresses getting the team in shape with the ball so the Americans are in good spots if possession is fumbled away. Well, it didn’t take on that one.

The midfield was culpable on Belgium’s fourth, as Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan failed to communicate on which player should go pressure Steven Defour. When no one did, there was the fourth on Defour’s wonderful ball out to the left.

VIDEO: Hamburg’s Muller out seven months after goal celebration

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Nicolai Mueller has gone full Gramatica, in doing so putting extra pressure on American teammate Bobby Wood.

Muller scored the lone goal in Hamburg’s season-opening win over Augsburg, but his celebration recalled memories of an injury to former Arizona Cardinals kicker Bill Gramatica.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap ]

Muller’s “helicopter” goal celebration, a staple for the midfielder, saw him tear his ACL upon landing near the corner flag. He’s set to miss seven months.

That means even more of the scoring burden will fall on Wood, whose nine goals last season led the team in its race to avoid relegation. Muller’s five goals were tied for second with Austrian forward Michael Gregoritsch.

Here’s the Hamburg hierarchy, from Bundesliga.com:

“The diagnosis comes as a huge shock to us, it’s a big blow at the start of the season and obviously is really tough on Nicolai,” said Hamburg sporting director Jens Todt. “We wish him all the best for his recovery and, of course, will support him as best we can.”

“It’s bad news,” added HSV head coach Markus Gisdol. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Muller has thrice scored eight or more Bundesliga goals, and is a huge loss for Hamburg. Though it’s tempting to chasten a player who’s hurt while celebrating a goal, there’s always a part of us that wants to point out that the ligament probably wasn’t in the finest shape if it earned a tear on such a non-explosive landing.

New Zealand star striker Wood to leave Leeds for Burnley

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Chris Wood is undergoing a medical at Burnley ahead of a proposed $19.2 million move from Leeds United.

Wood, 25, has played briefly for two Premier League clubs, West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City, but saw his stock explode thanks to a 27-goal campaign in the Championship this season.

[ MORE: Premier League Sat. roundup ]

Burnley hopes the 6-foot-3 Wood can help replace Andre Gray, who left for Watford. The Clarets beat Chelsea on Opening Weekend and were unlucky to lose against West Brom on Saturday.

He’s also scored in his lone Championship appearance this season, and has thrice earned promotion; Wood helped West Brom and Leicester to the Premier League, and Brighton and Hove Albion to League One.

Wood has for some time been a star on the New Zealand national team, scoring 20 goals in 52 caps since 2009. He’s a perfect fit for Sean Dyche‘s playing style. The only question is whether he can bring his prowess to the Premier League level.

Stream Live: Huddersfield Town vs. Newcastle United

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Huddersfield Town looks to stay perfect in the Premier League when it hosts Newcastle United at the John Smith’s Stadium on Sunday (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Town handled Crystal Palace 3-0 in its first match since earning promotion from the Championship, powered by a brace from 22-year-old ex-Montpellier striker Steve Mounie.

USMNT midfielder Danny Williams is on the bench for Town, which is managed by ex-USMNT player David Wagner.

[ STREAM: Huddersfield Town vs. Newcastle United ]

Newcastle United, meanwhile, fell 2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur. The clubs were scoreless through 50 minutes when Jonjo Shelvey stamped on Dele Alli and earned a red card.

He sits Sunday, and will be replaced by Borussia Dortmund loanee Mikel Merino.

LINEUPS

Huddersfield Town: Lossl, Smith, Billing, Schindler, Zanka, Lowe, Mooy, Van La Parra, Kachunga, Ince, Mounie. Subs: Coleman, Malone, Lolley, Williams, Quaner, Hefele, Palmer.

Newcastle United: Elliot, Manquillo, Lascelles, Mbemba, Clark; Ritchie, Merino, Hayden, Atsu; Perez, Gayle. Subs: Darlow, Saivet, Aarons, Diame, Murphy, Joselu, Mitrovic.

MLS Snapshot: Chicago Fire 1-3 Toronto FC (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): Greg Vanney and Toronto keep on doing their thing, and the Canadian side is yet another step closer to achieving MLS glory. TFC picked up its 50th point of the season on Saturday night after comfortably handling the Chicago Fire, who have cooled off significantly as of late in the Eastern Conference. The Fire are now nine points behind the East leaders and are losers of four of their last five matches.

Three moments that mattered

54′ — Accam, Fire level it up — Toronto really does manage to get contributions from everybody…

64′ — Hasler nets first MLS goal — Toronto really does manage to get contributions from all of their players…

90′ — Giovinco says goodnight to Chicago — That’s 12 goals on the season for Sebastian Giovinco and the TFC striker continues to help his side push towards the top seed in the East and MLS.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Marco Delgado (14′), David Accam (54′), Nick Hasler (63′), Sebastian Giovinco (90′)