Belgians pick apart U.S. defense, roll to easy win in Cleveland

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Combine the promise of a young and emerging Belgian national team with a disorganized United States defense and you get Wednesday’s result. Taking the lead in the seventh minute before scoring three times in the second half, Belgium saw goals from Kevin Mirallas, Marouane Fellaini, and two from Christian Benteke defeat the U.S., the 4-2 final understating the extent to which the Belgians controlled the match.

The visitors out-shot the U.S. 10-3, including 8-2 advantage in shots on goals. Before their final, 71st minute goal, Belgium rarely allowed the U.S. enough positive possession to penetrate their attacking third, with the game’s final 20 minutes seeing a resurgent U.S. battle back amid the disappointment of a match that was prematurely settled.

The night got off to a bad start for the U.S., who gave up a goal inside seven minutes. Belgian attacker Kevin De Bruyne, with no pressure on him at the edge of the attacking third, played onto his right foot from the left flank ahead of a through ball into Tim Howard’s area. The Everton star charged off his line but couldn’t get to De Bruyne’s pass ahead of Romelu Lukaku, who had blown past a U.S. defense frozen, assuming Howard would collect the ball. Lukaku’s poke ended up ricocheting to Kevin Mirallas, the defense failing to get back before Howard’s club teammate chipped home the opener from just inside the 18-yard box.

Over the next 20 minutes, Belgium retained control of play but not the score, with the U.S. equalizing in the 23rd minute off a corner kick. A restart initially played short was crossed far post for Clint Dempsey, who’d won space from Vincent Kompany, allowing him to head the ball back toward the left post.  Geoff Cameron had gotten a step on Jan Vertonghen and, partially making up for his part in the preceding goal, headed home to made it 1-1.

(MORE: Breaking down Wednesday’s defensive breakdowns for the United States)

It was the U.S.’s only shot on goal of the half. Belgium, conversely, recorded five shots, three of which tested Howard, though one of the biggest threats, a ball from Lukaku that ended up in the back of the net in the 27th minute, was waved off for offside.

Another strong Lukaku chance, blasted toward Howard’s right post from inside the arc, was pushed wide in the 40th minute, allowing the teams to go into halftime tied, 1-1.

Whereas the Belgians had brought on Sebastien Pocognoli (for Thomas Vermaelen) and Christian Benteke (for Moussa Dembele) in the first half, Jurgen Klinsmann waited until after halftime to make his first changes. Brad Guzan and Eddie Johnson were brought on, with Howard and Jozy Altidore giving way.

Over the first 10 minutes of the second half, the U.S. had appeared to pick up their intensity in defensive. Then a through ball for Benteke to the middle of the U.S. area was cleared weakly by Omar Gonzalez into the right of the States’ area. De Bruyne got to the ball and touched it back toward Benteke, who Gonzalez has left to pursue the errant clearance. Benteke’s one-time shot from just outside the six-yard box put Belgium back in front, 2-1.

In the 64th minute, after Klinsmann had brought on Terrence Boyd for Brad Davis, a long ball played through a high U.S. line allowed Lukaku a shot from 16 yards out, a try that was pushed out at the near post. Off the resulting corner, the second ball in was sent far post for Marouane Fellaini, whose sharp-angle header down at the left post beat Guzan to give Belgium a 3-1 lead.

Seven minutes later, after Brad Evans had been brought on for Graham Zusi, Benteke got behind the U.S. defense to chip a bouncing ball over the oncoming Guzan. The Aston Villa star’s sixth international goal put the visitors up, 4-1.

In the 80th minute, a handball called on Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld on an Eddie Johnson cross allowed Clint Dempsey to convert from the spot. His 10th goal in his last 13 international appearances pulled the U.S. within two.

It would be the last chance of the night for the U.S., a team that struggled to muster a consistent threat against the high-powered Belgians. The visitors, on the other hand, saw little resistance through midfield, with long passes through the U.S. defense taking advantage of a unit that lacked organization.

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

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The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

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We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

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According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

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It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]