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It’s too early to discount Spain, but there were some definite warning signs on Sunday

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In previewing Spain’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Italy, we noted that with the possible exception of Portugal at last year’s European Championships, no team had been able to go toe-to-toe with Spain and survive. Yes, Switzerland (World Cup 2010) and the United States (Confederations Cup 2009) had beat La Furia Roja in competitive matches, but they did so by employing a low-percentage approach that gave them the proverbial puncher’s chance. Like Holland in the 2010 World Cup final, they didn’t exactly play their game.

Yet in the span of four days, we’ve seen two teams stay true to themselves, stand flat-footed in front of the world champs, and survive. Other teams have done this in friendlies – Italy and France are two that come to mind – but Italy’s semifinal performance was the first time since Portugal we’ve seen a team truly trouble the Spaniards.

And then Sunday, Brazil not only troubled Vicente del Bosque’s side, they routed them. A goal in the second minute followed by a half of pressure led to a 2-0 lead by intermission. Scoring two minutes into the second half, Brazil couldn’t have made it look simpler. It was an unfathomably easy win over a team many consider to the best of all time.

Since there’s no way to know whether this was just an off day or the first cracks in the dam, it’s of little use to proclaim this is the end of the Spanish armada. It might be. Results as dramatic as these often hint at something bigger. But without the context of future matches, we can’t draw broad conclusions. All we can do is look at possibilities.

As it concerns their future dominance, the most concerning part of today’s performance was their midfield’s ineffectiveness. Yes, their defense was troublesome, but that’s never hindered them before. And although Iker Casillas was bad, Spain has a slew of other goalkeepers. But they don’t have another Xavi Hernandez. They don’t have another Andres Iniesta. If other teams can find ways to limit that duo’s effectiveness, be it through athleticism and physicality (like Brazil) or pure numbers (like Italy), Spain is in as much trouble as their doubters may proclaim. You don’t need super talent, only a particularly type of talent, to implement either of those approaches.

Compounding this possibility – and as this point, it’s nothing more than a distant possibility – is Spain’s unwillingness to develop another option. Jesus Navas’s wide play could be thought of as a significant change, but there was a time before Vicente del Bosque where Spain used to make better use of their forwards, be they David Villa, Daniel Guiza, or an in-form Fernando Torres. Now, with Spain rarely playing real wingers and seemingly accepting forward’s a synonym for black hole (they’re still starting Torres), there are no alternatives. They’ve imposed their own tactical limitations, making themselves a sitting duck.

It’s a testament to Spain’s talent that they haven’t been exploited before, exactly why predictions of their demise are so confounding. We can talk Xs and Os all day, but those are ultimately mere plans which make teams more or less likely to win. At some point, Iniesta can just better than his opponent. Same for Xavi. Same for any of the myriad of options del Bosque has at his disposal. Even if that doesn’t mean reintegrating a player like Fernando Llorente, Spain is more than capable of adjusting.

The question is whether they will. Their lack of adjustments over the last five years is both understandable and what’s led to this point of doubt. Is this a flaw in their DNA, something that can’t be changed without compromising what makes them Spain? Or will Spain evolve?

Or, is this result just a one-off? Spain is old. Their Barcelona and Real Madrid-heavy squad has played an unprecedented number of games (club and country) during Spain’s run, and unaccustomed to the Brazilian heat, La Roja may have wilted. Had they not played four games leading into the Brazil match, or if they had more preparation ahead of the games (as they will at next year’s World Cup), perhaps we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

We are, in fact, having this conversation, though. Brazil proved Spain was not only mortal but potentially vulnerable: exploitable. While it’s too early to know the extent to which Spain have faded, based on the lofty stature they held after their game against Uruguay, it’s fair to say they have faded. If only a little.

 

Arsenal reportedly set for $69 million double Friday buy

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14:  Lucas Perez of RC Deportivo la Coruna reacts during the La Liga match between Rayo Vallecano and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Teresa Rivero on September 14, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger‘s much-maligned transfer business is about to take the “much” off the verb.

Lucas Perez of Deportiva de la Coruna is reportedly going to be joining Arsenal on Friday, and the Gunners are also close to finally landing Valencia center back Shkodran Mustafi.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Perez, 27, broke out for a career-best 17 goals last season, and scored on debut last weekend. He’s set to cost $22.5 million, while Mustafi makes up the other $46.5 million.

The 12-times capped German center back stands 6-foot, and would bring stability to a Gunners unit which has (again) been beset by injuries.

From the BBC:

Spaniard Lucas, 27, scored 17 goals in 37 games last season and Arsenal will meet a 20m euro (£17.1m) buyout clause.

Germany international Mustafi, 24, is set to join for a fee in excess of £35m.

Is this, coupled with the Granit Xhaka buy, enough to help Wenger right the ship? Mustafi, especially, would be a key piece. Perez is a bit of a lesser-known quality.

MLS Weekend Preview: Desperation mounts as rivals meet in Oregon

Portland Timbers defender Vytas Andriuskevicius, second from right, trips up Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, right, in the second half of a MLS soccer match, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, in Seattle. Andriuskevicius was called for a foul on the play, and the Sounders' Clint Dempsey scored a goal on the resulting penalty kick. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Desperation is up-and-down the schedule this weekend in Major League Soccer, as the playoff race really heats up.

The calendar turns to September next week, and teams will end this weekend with a clear view of their runs into the season’s final Sunday: Oct. 23.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

The tumult that is an MLS season means only one team is more than two wins out of a playoff spot right now, and that’s Houston (7 points back of Western No. 6 Portland).

Here’s who is feeling the heat of their matches this weekend:

Portland and Seattle: The Cascadia Cup rivals tangle Sunday in Oregon, with the Timbers holding a one-point edge on the Sounders for the West’s final playoff spot. Seattle has played one fewer games than Portland, and a win on Sunday would be a double-whammy for PDX; The Timbers would be level on points with Seattle and Vancouver in the Cascadia Cup standings with just one match to go (compared to their opponents’ two).

Vancouver: The ‘Caps don’t have a Cup game this weekend, but will face an L.A. team which hasn’t lost at home. Vancouver is in real danger of moving more than one win behind in the fight for a playoff spot. If they lose to L.A. and both San Jose and Portland win, the Whitecaps will be five points back of a playoff spot. Of course, this being MLS, a win and help could see Vancouver in sixth when the smoke clears.

Columbus and New England: No one likes to comment on job status, but Revs’ boss Jay Heaps and his Columbus counterpart (Gregg Berhalter) have to be a bit concerned at this point. New England is a total mess, opening up a goalkeeping controversy, and is pinning its hopes on some Open Cup final karma. The Crew was supposed to contend for a title after last year’s final run, but is currently in the East’s cellar with just three home wins from 13 matches.

Schedule

Friday
Colorado at Real Salt Lake — 8 p.m. EDT

Saturday
Chicago at DC United — 7 p.m. EDT
Sporting KC at Philadelphia — 7 p.m. EDT
San Jose at Columbus — 7:30 p.m. EDT
Montreal at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. EDT
FC Dallas at Houston — 9 p.m. EDT
Vancouver at LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. EDT

Sunday
New England at New York Red Bulls — 2:30 p.m. EDT
Seattle at Portland — 5 p.m. EDT
New York City at Orlando City — 7 p.m. EDT

Season starts Friday, so here is your Bundesliga 2016-17 primer

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 30:  Julian Green #37 of FC Bayern Munich smiles after scoring the last of his three goals against FC Internazionale during an International Champions Cup match at Bank of America Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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The Bundesliga opens another season Friday, and the first question on many minds is simple: Will anyone come close to dethroning Bayern Munich?

Bayern has four-straight Bundesliga titles, giving them a league-best 26 German Championships. And USMNT fans have legit reason to be excited about Julian Green’s season with the Bavarians, as his new coach is interested in seeing the 21-year-old at work.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

But this could be the year for the last team with a different name to win a title, as at least one team has added a load of proven strength.

Let’s dig into Bundesliga 2016-17:

Who went down? Stuttgart and Hannover 96

Only two? Eintracht Frankfurt finished 16th, but beat Nurnberg in the pro/rel playoff.

Who came up? RB Leipzig, Augsburg

New faces to know: Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich), Marc Bartra (Borussia Dortmund), Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund), Aleksandar Dragovic (Bayer Leverkusen), Nabil Bentaleb (Schalke), Baba Rahman (Schalke), Coke (Schalke), Breel Embolo (Schalke), Benjamin Stambouli (Schalke), Jhon Cordoba (Mainz), Allan (Hertha BSC), Jeffrey Bruma (Wolfsburg), Borja Mayoral (Wolfsburg), Alen Halilovic (Hamburg), Florent Hadergjonaj (Ingolstadt), Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Takashi Usami (Augsburg), Lamine Sane (Werder Bremen), Alexander Milosevic (Darmstadt), Victor Obinna (Darmstadt), Guillermo Varela (Eintracht Frankfurt), Jesus Vallejo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Michael Hector (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Mascarell (Eintracht Frankfurt), Timo Werner (RB Leipzig).

Gone from the league: Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton), Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Ragnar Klavan (Liverpool), Alex Manninger (Liverpool), Dantre (Nice), Lorius Karius (Liverpool), Younes Belhanda (Dynamo Kyiv), Leroy Sane (Manchester City), Joel Matip (Liverpool), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Havard Nordtveit (West Ham), Omar Damari (New York Red Bulls), Caleb Stanko (FC Vaduz), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew), Carlos Zambrano (Rubin Kazan), Russell Canouse (VfL Bochum), Anthony Ujag (Liaoning Whowin), Gerard Tremmel (Swansea City), Papy Djilobodji (Chelsea), David Yelldell (Sonnenhof Großaspach e.V.)

Old league faces, new league places: Mario Gotze (Borussia Dortmund), Andre Schurrle (Borussia Dortmund), Kevin Volland (Bayer Leverkusen), Christoph Kramer (Gladbach), Naldo (Schalke), Jakub Blaszczykowski (Wolfsburg), Mario Gomez (Wolfsburg), Marco Hoger (Koln), Max Kruse (Werder Bremen), Lukas Rupp (Hoffenheim), Kevin Vogt (Hoffenheim), Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim),



Americans Abroad: Bobby Wood (Hamburg), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen), Fabian Johnson (Monchengladbach), Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Terrence Boyd (RB Leipzig), Ken Gipson? (RB Leipzig).

We’re at the point where the United States could put together a halfway decent XI from Bundesliga sides if a goalkeeper and second center back hit the scene.

Yeah, but which ones will factor? Every name on that list should have an opportunity to make an impact this season, not just club stars like Johnson, Brooks, and Morales.

Who scores the most goals between Wood, Pulisic, Johannsson, Green, and Boyd? We’ll let you answer that in the comments.

Why the question mark next to Gipson? The 20-year-old right back has U.S. citizenship, but is a German.

Why will Bayern win? The giants also have a new coach in Carlo Ancelotti, and minimal roster tumult. As usual, though, they’ve added superstars to replace superstars. Gone are Mario Gotze and Mehdi Benatia, and arriving are Mats Hummels and Renato Sanches. Bayern won the league by 10 points last season, and it’s hard to imagine someone closing that big of a gap.

Make me a case they don’t: That’s easy. Borussia Dortmund. Thomas Tuchel’s bunch have brought back Gotze from Bayern, added Andre Schurrle from Wolfsburg, Marc Bartra from Barcelona and Rennes dynamo Ousmane Dembele. After a horrific start to last season, BVB played as well as anyone in the second half. Maybe they do it for a whole season.

Who else could thrive? Schalke has made some significant additions in the wake of selling Leroy Sane to Manchester City, and Olympic hero Max Meyer could be primed to take the next step in his career. Wolfsburg has added some big names like Borja Mayoral, Jakub Blaszczykowski, and Jeffrey Bruma, and Borussia Monchengladbach could be good again if it can deal with the loss of Granit Xhaka to Arsenal. Don’t sleep on Bayer, either.

Report: French outfit Nice interested in adding Liverpool’s Balotelli

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 14:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan looks on during the Serie A match between AC Milan and AS Roma at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 14, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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Mario Balotelli could soon have a new home, according to the BBC’s Phil McNulty.

The mercurial Italian striker, 26, has one league goal in each of his last two seasons (spent between Liverpool and AC Milan).

Jurgen Klopp is ready for Balotelli to find a home away from Anfield and McNulty says that place could be OGC Nice, where he’d join newly-signed ex-Bayern man Dante. Balotelli also had talks with Sion in Switzerland, according to the report.

The striker was a blazing hot commodity after scoring 17 goals for Manchester City in 2011-12, and again after netting 18 for AC Milan in 2013-14.

Balotelli has 13 goals in 33 caps for Italy, but hasn’t appeared for the national team since 2014.