New partner, no problem: Michael Bradley didn’t miss a beat against Panama

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SEATTLE — By full time, the Seattle crowd was the big story, but during most of the match, the man who has slowly gained consensus as the U.S.’s best player put on another show, on that he did without his usually partner in crime. Without Jermaine Jones beside him in midfield, Michael Bradley didn’t miss a beat. And arguably, he raised his game in the absence.

Jones was out of Tuesday’s match, recovering from a concussion. Geoff Cameron stepped in admirably, dominating the space in front of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, but with more limited responsibilities than Jones is asked to take on, Cameron was a distinctly different kind of partner.

“We asked him to win a lot of balls back, cover the two center backs, and have a strong presence in there,” was Jurgen Klinsmann’s description of Cameron’s destroyer role. “I said once you get that ball just keep it simple. Kind Michael Bradley. Find Clint (Dempsey). Find the players around him, and  cover our two center backs.”

That meant the push would have to come from Bradley, something we saw on the U.S.’s first goal. Cameron’s win-and-give directive sprung Bradley in the 36th minute, the 25-year-old surging through the Panamanian midfield and collapsing the Canaleros defense before playing wide to Fabian Johnson, who had all the space and time he needed to hit a perfect cross to Jozy Altidore.

Even before the goal, Bradley’s impact was huge, dropping back into defense to pick up the ball and orchestrate the U.S.’s very deliberate plan. When Eddie Johnson starts in midfield, the U.S. is almost always going to have an advantage when the Sounder target man attacks the far post. With DaMarcus Beasley releasing early from his left back position, the U.S. wanted to build down the left before playing to Johnson and Jozy Altidore. It was Bradley’s job to orchestrate that.

source:  Of the 46 passes Bradley attempted in the first half (pictured), only nine went from left-to-right in the right side of the field. The remaining 38 were either already on the left or moved the ball in that direction (or straight forward). Many went to Besler, as Bradley sought to steer play across the back. There were some long diagonals toward the byline for Beasley. A series of other balls were just the small plays you’d expect from a midfielder who was trying to build box-to-box.

For the day, Bradley completed 78 of the 87 passes he attempted. Cameron was 47 for 56, but with the disparity in attempts, you can see the command Bradley had of the U.S.’s passing game.

“As a midfielder, you’re constantly trying to read the game,” Bradley explained, asked about the adjustments he made in Jones’ absence. “You’re constantly trying to find space. You’re trying to find the spots on the field where you can make an impact. And at times that’s going to be defensively. At times it’s going to be attacking-wise.

“Sure, when you’re playing with Geoff, the situations that you find yourself in are going to be different. There’s going to be the opportunity to be a little bit more mobile at times, to be a little bit more two-way, to find the opportunities to move forward into the attack. I think that understanding was good tonight.”

Good might be an understatement. Cameron’s simplified role may the understanding easier, but Bradley still had to execute. Stepping up in Jones’s absence and triggering the U.S.’s opening goal, Bradley’s execution helped push his team to the top of CONCACAF qualifying.

Manchester derby “the game of the season”

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Whatever way you slice it up, Thursday’s Manchester derby is huge.

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Manchester City host Manchester United (Watch, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola‘s side just one point ahead of United in the Premier League table.

City currently occupy fourth spot and the final UEFA Champions League qualification berth but are coming off the back of a damaging FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal after extra time.

United and Jose Mourinho haven’t lost in 23 Premier League games, the longest current unbeaten streak across Europe’s top five leagues, and are in the UEFA Europa League semifinals as their banged up squad have stood tall in the final months of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the derby, one of United’s stars this season believes everything comes down to this one game.

“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win we have the chance to finish in the top four, if they win it is going to be very difficult. It is the game of the season.

“Make or break? Probably. Both teams are in a good moment so if one of us wins the game we are not going to lose a lot of games, or make mistakes after that. Us or them. It is going to be key. I don’t know the ‘winner takes all’ expression but it is going to be a massive game. We are in a very good moment, a very good run and we respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”

Herrera’s comments say it all.

It is fair to say that both Manchester clubs have flattered to deceive for much of this season with Guardiola’s tactics yet to flourish in England and Mourinho’s rebuild hampered by injuries and a lack of goals at crucial moments.

On Thursday there will be a raucous atmosphere at the Etihad as both teams are aware of what is at stake.

More of the pressure may well be on City who now have just a place in the top four to focus on and with many previously giving United no chance of finishing in the top four, a win at City would take them above their “noisy neighbors” and into the UCL spots.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.