Altidore, Johnson goals lead United States past Panama, to top of CONCACAF qualifying

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SEATTLE – And just like that, all the consternation of the Jurgen Klinsmann era seems like a distant memory, with the United States Men’s National Team’s 2-0 victory over Panama on Tuesday vaulting the team to the top of their World Cup qualifying group.

A perfectly executed a first half counter attack say Jozy Altidore finish a Fabian Johnson cross in the 36th minute, opening the scoring for the Americans. Early in the second half, Geoff Cameron lofted a ball over the Panamanian defense for Eddie Johnson, the Seattle Sounder finishing into the left of goal in front of 40,847 of his local fans, giving the U.S. their two-goal margin.

The win leaves the U.S. at the top of CONCACAF qualifying, their three points enough to leap-frog a Costa Rican team that drew, 0-0, in Mexico City.

In a game played without starting midfielder Jermaine Jones, we knew Michael Bradley was going to be important, and while dropping back early and orchestrating play toward a left side the U.S. seemed intent to leverage, the American maestro was quickly at his game-dictating best. But it was his drive, not his orchestration, that helped produce the first goal, with Bradley taking a 36th minute ball won by Cameron and snapping the Panamanian defense.

Bursting through midfield, Bradley drew the back line to him before playing wide left at the edge of the U.S.’s final third. There Fabian Johnson had all day to hit an indefensible ball across goal for Altidore. The striker’s third goal in as many games gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead.

(MORE: Five things we learned from the U.S. win)

Having controlled play through much of the half, the U.S. were right to claim the first goal, one that could have come earlier. In the third minute, Fabian Johnson’s half-volley from nine yards out flew over the Jaime Penedo’s goal. Three minutes later, a cross from DaMarcus Beasley whiffed on by Johnson saw Clint Dempsey’s own half-volley rushed by Carlos Rodriguez. In the 22nd minute, a cross knocked down for Bradley was headed for nylon had it avoided Dempsey at the edge of the six. By the time the U.S. broke through in the 36th minute, a series of chances complemented their constant forays down the left to cast them as the more effective side.

Panama, however, had their own isolated moments as they tried to exploit Brad Evans down their own left side. Left back Carlos Rodriguez appeared to beat him early before slipping on a suspect pitch, one that saw each side’s players in constant danger of going to ground. As the half went on, left-wing Alberto Quintero gave Evans problems, but with Panama unable to maintain significant possession, the Canaleros had far less success down their left then the U.S. had down theirs.

(MORE: U.S. player ratings vs. Panama)

After an initial feeling out period to start the second half, the United States doubled their lead in the 53rd minute. Beasley, on the ball near the center line, was allowed to cut in before playing forward to Cameron. The Stoke City defender turned before lifting a ball behind the defense for Eddie Johnson, who’d beat Rodriguez from his right midfield position. After settling the ball in the right of the box, Johnson used his second touch to finish far post on Penedo, giving the U.S. their 2-0 lead.

Although Dempsey nearly added to the U.S.’s lead in the 63rd while Beasley hit the post in the 79th, the Americans second half was defined by a confident control they had exhibited from the opening kickoff. Without Blas Pérez in the team for Panama, the visitors lacked a focal point in attack, though even if the FC Dallas striker had made the trip, it’s unlikely he would have changed his team’s destiny. As they did in Jamaica, the U.S. looked like a team that has come into its own, but whereas a second half blip forced the States to find some late heroics to win in Kingston, Tuesday’s game displayed a calm authority befitting the best team in their region.

Sitting on top of “The Hex,” the U.S. has CONCACAF’s best claim to that title, though if there are any doubts as to whether Klinsmann’s team is for real, the squad get another chance to silence critics next Tuesday. At Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah, the U.S. will have an opportunity to avenge their only loss of qualifying’s final round when they face the fourth-place Hondurans in Sandy.

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.