Preview: Confident United States expecting victory against Panama

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SEATTLE, Wash. – The rhetoric surrounding Jurgen Klinsmann’s time with the U.S. men’s national team has always cast the coach’s tenure as a process, one that would require the program to regroup and reset before moving forward. Two weeks ago, as Belgium was slicing through the team in a Cleveland friendly, that process appeared to be sputtering, but after wins against Germany and Jamaica, confidence is high ahead of the team’s latest challenge – Tuesday’s World Cup Qualifier against Panama.

“We need to confirm what we’ve built over the last couple of games,” was Klinsmann’s assessment as the team arrived in Seattle, site of Tuesday’s match. After their 2-1 win in Kingston, the U.S. sit second in “The Hex” – the six-team final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying tournament. With three teams advancing directly to Brazil 2014, the U.S. will take a big step to a seventh-straight World Cup with a win over Panama.

“We want to get three points on Tuesday night, badly,” Klinsmann said. “It’s a must-win. Every home game is a must-win. We know that.”

(MORE: The U.S.’s long trip, quick turnaround after Jamaica)

With the qualifying tournament just short of its half-way mark, the game’s far from a must-win, but with the well-established maxim of ‘win all your home games’ entrenched in CONCACAF lore, you wouldn’t expect a coach of one of the region’s favorites to say anything less. And while the math may not support Klinsmann’s urgency, given the progress the U.S. has made over the last two weeks, anything but full points would be a major setback. Against a team that’s never reached a World Cup, a draw could be a step back.

Panama’s chances of getting that result took were dealt a severe blow this weekend when Blas Perez was ruled out of Tuesday’s match. The veteran FC Dallas striker and Panama’s most dangerous goal-scoring threat, Perez was ruled out with gastrointestinal problems. The 32-year-old’s absence will make life easier on defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, who now will focus their attentions on Luis Tejada and Rolando Blackburn.

There are, however, other points of worry in the Panamanian team. In captain Felipe Baloy, the Canaleros have a defender capable of starting for any team in the region, his physicality capable of neutralizing even an in-form Jozy Altidore. In the middle, former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gomez has always been a force for country, even if he failed to have a significant impact in Major League Soccer. He’ll be a major focal point for Michael Bradley.

(MORE: Bradley’s importance could be tested | Without Jermaine Jones.)

Even with those talents, Panama’s challenges down to a coaching truism. If Klinsmann’s team plays to their potential – if the team that faced Jamaica and Germany boarded the charter to Seattle – the United States will win. It will probably be difficult, as most U.S. games are, and there may be moments where a Brad Evans-esque player will have to unexpectedly step up, but the U.S. is beyond doubting their capabilities to do so.

The bigger question is how many of those of those capabilities will be at Klinsmann’s disposal. Jermaine Jones, the much-maligned midfield hard man whose become one of Klinsmann’s obligatory starters, is out while recovering from a concussion. Graham Zusi, so crucial in providing service from the right for Altidore’s recent goals, was cautioned in Kingston, leaving him suspended with after accumulating too many yellow cards.

The extent to which Klinsmann’s replacements click will dictate how easy the U.S. has it against Panama. In the middle, Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron is most likely to take Jermaine Jones’s mantle, his utility man’s ability to play central defense, right back, and midfield focused in support of Bradley. In place of Zusi, the situation is more nebulous, with Eddie Johnson, Joe Corona, and Brad Davis all potentially starting against Panama.

(MORE: “Adaptability” in action, just as Klinsmann preached.)

The biggest names, however, are there. Clint Dempsey will wear the armband. Tim Howard will protect the net. Jozy Altidore will be chasing goals, while Omar Gonzalez looks to continue his ascent in defense. With nine of eleven starters returning from the Jamaica match – and with Panama missing their leading scorer – there’s little appetite to accept excuses.

If the States win, they could very well sit top of the group through five rounds, the Hex-leading Costa Ricans facing a tough task in Mexico City. Any other result, and the States will be examining at themselves instead of the standings.

(MORE: Costa Rica plan plan Mexico upset, Honduras host Jamaica)

Rio prosecutors launch probe into soccer final violence

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro launched an investigation Thursday into the fan violence surrounding the Copa Sudamericana final between local club Flamengo and Argentine team Independiente.

[ SOURCE: LAFC close to signing third DP, Geraldes of Sporting CP ]

Clashes broke out on the night before Wednesday’s match at Maracana Stadium, and continued throughout the day. There was vandalism inside the stadium during the match and violence afterward, with more than 50 Flamengo supporters being detained over the two days.

The Rio prosecutor’s office said in a statement it would be questioning officials at Brazil’s football confederation, South American soccer’s ruling body, CONMEBOL, and local police about the incidents.

The statement added that “a profound investigation of the facts is needed so we can identify and punish the criminals that disguised as fans to spread chaos, fear and disorder in society.”

Major Silvio Luiz, head of policing for the final, criticized Flamengo’s handling of ticket sales.

Flamengo drew the second-leg match 1-1, and lost the final 3-2 on aggregate. The Copa is the second most prestigious club competition in South American soccer.

Ligue 1 set to use VAR starting in 2018/19 season

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With video replay technology becoming more and more prevalent in soccer across the globe, another major European league has revealed it too will join those ranks.

[ SOURCE: LAFC set to sign third DP with Sporting CP’s Geraldes ]

Ligue 1 has announced that the French top flight will begin to utilize video replay and have a video assistant referee (VAR) starting in the 2018/19 season.

Major League Soccer and the German Bundesliga are just two of the major global leagues to implement the system thus far. In MLS, the technology can be used in four instances; when goals are scored, during penalty situations, when a straight red card is given and during cases of mistaken identity.

French outlet L’Equipe wrote on Thursday that Ligue 1 would also follow a similar structure in what decisions VAR officials will be reviewable.

Spain has also announced that it will introduce VAR in 2018, ahead of the next La Liga season.

Top Premier League storylines — Week 17

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The title is looking more and more like it’s heading to Manchester, so will Tottenham be able to slow the Premier League leaders on Saturday?

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

 

Here are the four biggest storylines ahead of this weekend’s action.

Can anyone stop the Cityzens?

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

Nobody has found a way to halt Pep Guardiola‘s side yet this season in PL play, so why would that change this weekend? City remain unbeaten through 17 matches, and while Spurs enter the weekend unbeaten in its last four, Mauricio Pochettino and Co. have their work cut out. The City attack, which has scored 52 goals this season, has shown no signs slowing down during the first four-and-a-half months of play, giving Tottenham a big test defensively. Harry Kane and his 12 goals will surely have a say in the get together, but Spurs has been lacking thus far in another go-to finisher.

Will the Toffees keep rolling under Big Sam?

Everton vs. Swansea City — 3 p.m. ET Monday on NBCSN (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

It’s been quite the turnaround recently at Goodison Park, and Everton has the chance to extend its unbeaten streak to six games on Monday. Sam Allardyce has brought life to the Toffees as of late, with Everton scoring 11 goals over the last five matches.

Foxes aim to climb higher, while Palace shoots for safety

Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace — 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

The Foxes have found their footing this season, and dare I say there are some glimpses of the team that won the title two years ago? Since Leicester’s 2-0 defeat to Man City, the Foxes have looked the part of a top-tier PL side, winning four of five matches, including victories over Tottenham and Burnley. Meanwhile, Palace has made the relegation battle a very intriguing one, as Roy Hodgson and Co. sit just a point inside the bottom three. Amazingly, Palace is unbeaten in seven of its last eight matches, but the club remains in 18th place.

Clarets aim for third consecutive victory

Brighton vs. Burnley — 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBC Sports Gold (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

The Clarets don’t boast a bonafide goalscorer, but Burnley looks like a well-oiled machine as Sean Dyche‘s side sits on the edge of the top four. Although the side likely won’t be pulling off a Leicester-sided feat in 2017/18, what the Clarets are accomplishing is quite amazing given the squad currently in place. Brighton has gone through its share of struggles recently, going winless in its last six matches, and scoring just three goals in that span. They’ll likely have a hard time breaking past Burnley’s tough backline.

NYCFC busy on Thursday with Abdul-Salaam, Stuver additions

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New York City FC is moving on from the club’s first-ever MLS SuperDraft selection, but they’ll be acquiring a solid defensive piece as the team continues to rebuild at the back.

[ SOURCE: LAFC finalizing deal to make Sporting CP’s Geraldes third DP ]

On Thursday, NYCFC announced a trade sending former 2015 first-round pick Khiry Shelton to Sporting KC in exchange for defender Saad Abdul-Salaam.

Shelton, who spent three seasons with NYCFC, struggled to find playing time under manager Patrick Vieira, particularly once the organization drafted England youth international Jack Harrison in 2016.

Vieira and Co. will be getting back a player also selected in the 2015 SuperDraft in Abdul-Salaam.

With the departures of Ethan White, RJ Allen and Andraz Struna this offseason, the move certainly makes sense for NYCFC, who were severely lacking at the right back position heading into this week.

NYCFC signed Malmo defender Anton Tinnerholm on Wednesday to help improve the backline.

The Eastern Conference side also added goalkeeper Brad Stuver from the Columbus Crew on Thursday, with the 26-year-old presumably serving as the backup to Sean Johnson in 2018.