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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.

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.

LIVE – West Ham vs. Liverpool in FA Cup 4th round replay

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 30:  Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool is watched by Dimitri Payet of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round match between Liverpool and West Ham United at Anfield on January 30, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Two Premier League teams clash in the FA Cup on Tuesday with a place in the last 16 on the line.

West Ham United welcome Liverpool to Upton Park (Follow live, 2:45 p.m. ET) following the 0-0 draw between the teams at Anfield 10 days ago.

[ LIVE: Follow West Ham-Liverpool here

Slaven Bilic‘s side will fancy their chances of getting past an injury-hit Liverpool squad and creating another famous FA Cup memory in their final season at the Boleyn Ground. With Dimitri Payet in contract negotiations about extending his stay at the Hammers, can the French playmaker lead them to a big win?

After missing Liverpool’s late collapse on Saturday during the 2-2 draw with Sunderland due to a bout of suspected appendicitis, manager Jurgen Klopp will return to the dugout. The German coach has already guided the Reds to one Wembley final during his debut season in charge as they face Manchester City in the League Cup final in less than three weeks time.

The winner of this clash will travel to second-tier Blackburn Rovers and they’ll be heavy favorites to reach the FA Cup quarterfinals.

Click on the link above to follow the game live, plus we will have a recap, reaction and analysis following the encounter in east London.

State of the USMNT: What is Klinsmann’s best XI for World Cup qualifiers?

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With the U.S. men’s national team ending their January camp with two narrow friendly wins over Iceland and Canada, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff will now be sitting back and thinking: “What did we learn? Who impressed? Who struggled?”

Or something like that.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

Each year the January camp provides domestic based players — mostly from Major League Soccer but a sprinkling of other guys too — with the chance to impress Klinsmann and his staff in close quarters for multiple weeks in California. Many current U.S. regulars earned their stripes in January’s gone by and have established themselves ever since.

This January was no different as the experienced core of players — Michael Bradley, Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore among them — showed their class and several promising players worked hard to get minutes in the friendlies.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

However, despite some glimmers of hope from youngsters such as Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter, what we learned about the USMNT heading into the two CONCACAF 2018 World Cup qualifiers in March is that the established players remain the best hope for success. Sure, the likes of John Brooks is impressing in the Bundesliga, Matt Miazga sealed a move to Chelsea and Lee Nguyen took his chance in January camp, but the old guard should remain in place through this next batch of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala home and away on Mar. 25 and 29 and the Copa America Centenario this summer.

Question marks remain regarding some veterans, which could keep the situation a little more fluid than it should be.

One of those is Tim Howard with speculation of him moving away from Everton mounting plus a straight-up battle between Howard and Brad Guzan for the starting spot, while Clint Dempsey‘s status with the national team still seems to be somewhat clouded. Overall, though, the settled core of players who played together at the World Cup — plus or minus a few who have performed consistently over the last 18 months — should be kept together by Klinsmann. During last summer’s Gold Cup disappointment there was plenty of experimenting, especially in defense, but now is the time to settle things down and realize the following guys are the players you should count on going forward.

Below is my selection — feel free to select your own in the comments section — for the best XI available to Klinsmann, plus seven subs, assuming everyone is fit and available.

USMNT’s Best XI as of Feb. 9, 2016

—– Howard —–

— F. Johnson — Cameron — Besler — Ream —

—- Bradley —- Williams —-

—- Bedoya —- Dempsey —- Zardes —-

—– Altidore —–

Subs: Guzan, Brooks, Jones, Yedlin, Nagbe, Morris, Johannsson

Ahead of huge title clash, influential Leicester scout transfers to Arsenal

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Ben Wrigglesworth might not be a man you’ve heard a lot about, but he has been influential in helping Leicester City’s unlikely charge to the top of the Premier League.

Now, he’s been poached by Leicester’s main title rivals: Arsenal.

[ MORE: Spurs, Arsenal to battle for title?

Ahead of the monster clash between the Foxes and Gunners at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the man who unearthed the likes of Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante has transferred to Arsenal and is now their First Team Video Scout.

Wrigglesworth, Leicester’s former Head of Technical Scouting, announced he would be leaving the Foxes via his Twitter page (see below) and he has now accepted a new role as part of Steve Rowley’s team at Arsenal.

It is believed he will not only help with the scouting of players but will also analyze Arsenal’s first team and the opposition.

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Arsenal will unveil a new player performance center at their training HQ this summer and have recently purchased a soccer data company based in America, statDNA, to help them with scouting and player analysis.

With several Premier League teams now having huge player databases monitored by a team of talented individuals — often, like Wrigglesworth, with no pro playing experience — scouring the globe for the next bargain, the Moneyball vibe is strong.