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.

Dempsey, Sounders steal a point on wild night in Portland

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The game in 100 words (or less): An entire game can change in the blink of an eye. For the Seattle Sounders, that blink came in the 44th minute of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers. Up 1-0 by way of Joevin Jones’ opener in the 27th minute, the defending MLS Cup champs were poised to head into halftime with a one-goal advantage and every belief imaginable that they’d been the better team for the entire first half. Blink. Brad Evans wrapped his legs around Darlington Nagbe, giving away a penalty and earning himself a red card, just like that, in the blink of an eye. Fanendo Adi stepped up to convert from the spot, but it still was to be a hard-fought 1-1 scoreline from Seattle’s perspective. Then, Dairon Asprilla got loose, completely unmarked atop the six-yard box, on a corner kick, and it was 2-1 after four minutes of first-half stoppage time. 45 more minutes pass, and the Timbers… blink. Clint Dempsey, 34 years old but fresh off the bench 40 minutes earlier, out-leaps everyone in the box and heads past Jake Gleeson to steal a point for Seattle.

[ MORE: San Jose fire Kinnear after 2.5 seasons ]

Three Four moments that mattered

27′ — Jones gets two chances, puts the second away — It’s a classic case of “I dropped my controller” from Alvas Powell, who just stops as Jones cuts across the penalty area. There’s no reason Jones should get a second look on this one.

44′ — Evans brings down Nagbe in the box, sees red — Goodbye, lead. Goodbye 11 versus 11. Things would unravel very quickly for Seattle.

45+4′ — Asprilla rises above to make it 2-1 — Seattle’s marking of Asprilla was nonexistent, and the Colombian showed off some serious hops to get his head to David Guzman’s corner kick.

90+4′ — Dempsey heads home deep in stoppage time — A costly turnover by Asprilla, a hit-it-and-pray cross by Roman Torres, and Dempsey snatches a point at the death.

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Man of the match: Cristian Roldan

Goalscorers: Jones (27′), Adi (45′ – PK), Asprilla (45+4′), Dempsey (90+4′)

Russia has reasons for optimism despite Confed Cup exit

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MOSCOW (AP) When the anger subsides after another group stage exit and another goalkeeping blunder, Russian fans might find they can be proud of their team at the Confederations Cup.

Russia failed to reach the knockout rounds of a fourth major tournament in a row, but there’s no shame in losing by one goal to European champion Portugal and North American champion Mexico.

“We will move on,” coach Stanislav Cherchesov said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico. “We have won (the fans’) hearts and minds to a certain extent in this month that we have been together … I think that we have given some reasons to feel optimistic about us.”

If Russia’s fans agreed with Cherchesov that Russia had done well to limit Portugal to a single Cristiano Ronaldo goal, there was frustration that Russia hadn’t done better against a poor Mexican side.

Russia wasted chances to exploit Mexico’s ragged defending and add to Alexander Samedov’s opener, while goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev performed an inexplicable lunge which allowed Hirving Lozano to head in the winner. Akinfeev was lucky not to be red-carded, too, after his foot caught Lozano in the chest.

Akinfeev was the immediate scapegoat for Russia’s exit, with fans and newspapers calling for his removal.

The most-capped player in the squad – the Mexico game was his 101st international appearance – Akinfeev’s bulletproof consistency in the Russian Premier League has kept him the undisputed national-team No. 1 for years.

When the world is watching, though, he gets flustered and makes mistakes.

Against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, an innocuous long shot slipped from his grasp and went in, paving the way for another early Russian exit from the tournament. There have been more than a few blunders in the 43 games since Akinfeev last kept a clean sheet for CSKA in the Champions League, too.

But it’s hard to see who could replace him. The naturalized Brazilian reserve keeper Guilheme is agile but injury prone, while Vladimir Gabulov is a solid but unspectacular veteran. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Yuri Lodygin challenged Akinfeev for a while, but was brought low by his own tendency for embarrassing errors.

On the positive side for Russia, defender Georgy Dzhikiya was solid in all three group games after having only made his debut on June 5, and Cherchesov’s three-man back line was mostly reliable.

Less successful was Cherchesov’s attempt to bolster the midfield by starting Roman Shishkin – usually a defender – in a defensive midfield role against Portugal and Mexico, while 33-year-old ex-Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov did his World Cup hopes no favors with a red card Saturday.

Russia’s run of injuries before the tournament weakened the midfield in particular, with Alan Dzagoev and the promising Roman Zobnin both missing out. Forward Artyom Dzyuba’s absence left Cherchesov relying heavily on Fyodor Smolov, who showed touches of class but missed a good chance against Portugal.

Perhaps the biggest damage from Russia’s Confederations Cup exit will be to Russian pride.

Officials have often bragged that the home advantage for next year’s World Cup could drive Russia to new heights, perhaps a repeat of South Korea’s charge to the semifinals in 2002. Those expectations are now being reviewed.

Just one World Cup host in history – South Africa in 2010 – has failed to get out of the group stage. Avoiding a repeat may be the most Russia can hope for.

FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers host Sounders in PNW showdown

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They don’t get much bigger, or more heated, than this one in MLS — it’s Portland versus Seattle, the Timbers versus the Sounders, tonight at Providence Park (10 p.m. ET).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers vs. Sounders ]

To keep up-to-the-second informed on proceedings in Portland this evening, hit the above link, or click right here.

Seattle won the first meeting between these sides, 1-0 back on May 27, on their home turf at CenturyLink Field. Cristian Roldan, who’ll depart for U.S. national team camp following Sunday’s game, scored the only goal that afternoon in Seattle, a 4th-minute header from three yards out.

Mustafi: Arsenal players powerless, hope “brilliant” Sanchez will stay

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Shkodran Mustafi admits that he, along with his Arsenal teammates, feels helpless with over the ongoing transfer saga of Alexis Sanchez.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The Chilean superstar is linked with a move away from Arsenal this summer, as the Gunners fell out of the Premier League’s top-four and the 28-year-old’s contract is set to expire next summer. Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez hasn’t so much as publicly stated a desire to remain at the club, which, from the outside, appears to have left his future in even greater doubt.

Mustafi admits he hasn’t a clue how things will shake out in the coming weeks, but he’s quick with a pleading sales pitch for Sanchez to stay — quotes from Goal.com:

“I have no idea. Obviously the other players cannot make that decision, he has to make that decision.

“I’m not too much involved. I hope he stays because he is a really brilliant football player but there’s nothing in my hands that I can do.”

[ MORE: De Boer set to be named new Crystal Palace boss ]

Arsenal would likely have to double (if not more) Sanchez’s current $180,000 weekly wages in order to convince him to forego a season in the UEFA Champions League and commit his long-term future to a club presently trending in the wrong direction.