Three huge positives to take from USA’s convincing win over Panama

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In a match that sent the United States to the top of the hexagonal table, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men showed they belong in the group’s elite.

With the 2-0 win over Panama, not only are the Stars and Stripes primed to control their own destiny on their way to Brazil 2014, but the numbers are with them as well.  According to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, which uses computer simulations to predict outcomes, the United States now have a 98.5% chance to qualify for the World Cup. I’d say those are pretty good odds.

As the hosts held home turf yet again, Seattle showed their atmosphere is possibly second to none despite a bit of controversy surrounding the venue prior to kickoff. Nothing is a given in the Hex on the road, but at home, the United States has done their job.  They’re undefeated in World Cup qualifiers since 2001, going 22-0-2 during that span. Tuesday night was no different.

It was a total dominance, as Panama had difficulty establishing a presence, and other than a short period before halftime and another short spell before the final whistle, they offered little in the attacking third.

Even though the visitors offered little quality to challenge the U.S., there were still things to be learned about the squad.

1) Role players are ready to step up anywhere they’re needed

With Graham Zusi and Jermaine Jones out, a couple of players shuffled positions with positive results.  Geoff Cameron played out of his mind in the holding midfielder role, allowing Michael Bradley to venture up forward.  This had a positive effect on the club in two separate ways.

First, Cameron’s ball-winning skills were on display.  He stepped in front of countless passes, and made tackles to keep Panama from building.  A quality holding midfielder can have a massive effect on a match, usually quite under the radar, because when there is no buildup it often goes unnoticed.  Cameron kept Panama from even attempting to create many chances.  His passes were off on occasion, especially in the beginning, but he gets a pass on that (sorry, that was awful) because of his absolutely brilliant ball to Eddie Johnson for the second goal.

Second, Bradley in the attack was a welcome sight for USMNT fans.  He had a number of venomous shots on goal from distance, including one that would have gone in had Clint Dempsey been gifted with reflexes just a split-second quicker.  In addition, Bradley’s chance creation skills were beautifully displayed all match. For example, in the 79th minute Bradley played a long ball out to Altidore, who connected with a running DaMarcus Beasley in search of a third goal, although the shot clanged off the post.  With Cameron back, Bradley grabbed the limelight – exactly how Klinsmann drew it up.

Whether it’s a first-team regular or an injury replacement, Klinsmann’s shown he’s willing to ride the hot hand, and between Cameron, Beasley, Altidore, Besler, Zusi, and both Fabian and Eddie Johnson, he’s got those who are clicking on the pitch out there and it’s working. The bossman will need more of the same against Honduras as Beasley will miss the next match due to yellow card accumulation.

2) Jozy Altidore is bursting with confidence

The 23-year-old forward, with the monkey off his back, has now scored in three straight international matches.  It started with the goal against Germany, a straightforward yet difficult volley into the top corner off a wonderful cross.  That goal has done a world of good for Jozy’s confidence, and it grows with every match.

It’s no coincidence the New Jersey native continues to find space in the box for these shots – Jurgen Klinsmann even mentioned in the postmatch press conference Tuesday night about how Jozy’s now not only using his vision to find space, but using his body as well.  Klinsmann said he spoke directly with AZ Alkmaar technical director Earnie Stewart – a Dutch-American with 101 USMNT caps to his name – about improving Jozy’s physical presence, and it’s working wonders.

Need proof? There were two obvious moments in the Panama match.  First, his goal.  A cool finish from a tight angle, even with the goal gaping, any hesitation from that angle and he’s on SportsCenter’s Not Top 10 plays.  Instead, it’s cool as a cucumber for the opening goal.

Second, he had a chance to put the U.S. three up with a long-range strike that stung the hands of keeper Jaime Penedo.  The rebound fell to Clint Dempsey who bounced it just over with a volley.  Nobody takes that kind of distance shot without oozing confidence, which is exactly what Jozy did. ‘Nuff said.

3) The team doesn’t look at the clock or the scoreboard

I mean this in a very positive way.  2-0 up at home against a Panama side struggling mightily, Klinsmann could have easily shut down shop, putting on an extra defender and closing the book. Instead, he went for the jugular, and I love it.

The U.S. men could be 2-0 or 12-0 up and they’d be looking for more.  It almost cost a goal in stoppage time, but I think Klinsmann knows that inviting pressure with the intent of staving it off is asking for trouble, and goal difference could mean the world with the way the hex is shaping up. Keep it up boys.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.