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.

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.