Mistakes mean progress for emerging Omar Gonzalez

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SEATTLE — A late save on a Luis Tejada chance, and Tim Howard had preserved another United States shutout, their third in five qualifiers. The goal would have been meaningless, the States already two up by the time Panama generated their best chance of the match, but it was another instance when defender Omar Gonzalez saw an error ruin what would have otherwise been a standout night.

“For most of the night, I thought that we did pretty well,” Gonzalez said after the U.S.’s victory. “There was that chance at the end, but that’s why you have Tim Howard – to make those saves in case they do get behind.”

While Howard did show his quality, defenders don’t get credit for needing their goalkeeper to bail them out. For Gonzalez, the moment fits a pattern that started with his first start in Honduras, his mistakes in the U.S.’s Hex opener contributing to a 2-1 loss. Slowly, those mistakes have become less meaningful, but for a player that regularly dominates long stretches of play, the errors stand in stark contrast to play that would otherwise place him among CONCACAF’s elite.

“Hopefully there comes a point soon where I put in a good, solid 90 minutes with no mistakes and help this team win,” Gonzalez said, still lamenting the Tejada chance while managing to stay positive about his overall performance.

And Gonzalez has plenty to be positive about. As the U.S.’s right center half, he had the responsibility of supporting right back Brad Evans, a man targeted by Panama from the match’s opening moments. Runs behind the natural midfielder by left wing Alberto Quintero and left back Carlos Rodriguez would have found early success, but to Gonzalez’s credit, Panama was never able to threaten Howard through Evans..

“They were going after Brad quite a bit,” Gonzalez conceded, asked to assess how he adjusted to the tactic. “I just wanted to make sure [Evans had] enough cover there. There were a couple of times that guy got around Brad, but I thought he and I both did well to get around the ball and make sure that [Panama] didn’t make the play.”

Run your mind over the rest of the U.S. player pool, and it’s difficult to come up with another player capable of providing that kind of protection. And in the 37th minute, as he reacted to a give-and-go at the top of the U.S. area, Gonzalez gave fans a perfect example of why, despite his momentary lapses, he remains the team’s top defender. Picking off Tejada’s pass and playing it into midfield, Gonzalez quickly defused what has been Panama’s most promising moment.

Not coincidentally, the fact Jurgen Klinsmann has been so forgiving of Gonzalez’s errors enables those kind of plays. Confident enough to force the pass while smart enough to read the ensuing play, Gonzalez eventually won the ball. Had be been more risk averse, he may have merely elected to keep the play in front of him and hope to block a shot.

“It just helps me personally to settle down a little bit and know that if I do make a mistake, it’s fine,” Gonzalez said of Klinsmann’s approach. “You learn from it, and you just try to forget about it as quick as possible.

“And (you) keep trying those things, because if you don’t try it, then you’re not going to get any better … [Klinsmann’s approach] gives every player that much more confidence to do something on the field.”

In aggregate, the results have been convincing. Gonzalez is the only defender to play every minute in qualifying’s final round, a stage that’s seen the U.S. give up only three goals in five games. If that’s with a Gonzalez that’s still coming into his own on the international stage, how good will the team be once the 24-year-old finishes his adjustment?

“There have been a lot of situations in a short period of time,” Gonzalez says, talking about being throw into the fire during the Hex. “I’ve been [putting] a lot of information in my head. Take the good stuff. And the bad stuff that happens, just forget about that.

“Like the Belgium game, things like that. I think all those are learning experiences. I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable with every game.”

It’s the kind of confession fans may not want to hear from their first choice defender, somebody who’d ideally be the unit’s most stalwart performer and leader. But while his ever-present role in final round qualifying hints at that stature, Gonzalez is not ready to call himself the group’s leading man.

“I don’t know if it [I am], but I’m happy to keep on playing,” was Gonzalez’s response when asked if he’s become the de facto leader in defense. “I’m happy to be stepping on the field and contributing to these performances.

“We’re one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup. I’m just really happy to be out there and a part of something that’s bigger than myself – just getting it done.”

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.