Gold Cup: Wondolowski hat trick leads U.S. in 6-1 rout of Belize

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PORTLAND, Ore. – The name on his back may have undermined his renown, “Wondowlowski” erroneously ironed onto his jersey, but after 42 minutes on Tuesday at JELD-WEN Field, nobody was talking about the typo scrawled across his shoulders. Instead, the buzz around Chris Wondolowski centered on his second, third and fourth international goals, all scored before halftime, with the reigning Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player lifting the U.S. to a 6-1 win over Belize in their opening match of the 2013 Gold Cup.

Belize’s only goal came the 39th minute, with defender Ian Gaynair heading home a restart to briefly pull the underdogs within one. But building on Wondolowski’s third just before intermission, second half tallies from Stuart Holden, Michael Orozco, and Landon Donovan helped push the U.S. to the top of Group C, their goal difference giving them a tiebreaker advantage over Costa Rica.

The Ticos also sit on three points after winning the night’s opening match, getting two goals from midfielder Michael Barrantes en route to a 3-0 win over Cuba.

(MORE: U.S. player ratings from Tuesday’s win)

Belize, playing in their first major international competition, were expected to offer little resistance to one of the tournament favorites, so it was no surprise when the U.S. dominated play from the opening kick off. Forcing two corner kicks in the first 90 seconds and maintaining over 80 percent of the match’s possession over the first 10 minutes, the Americans quickly pushed their opponents deep into their own end. With the ball rarely in the U.S.’s half,  the Americans appeared destined for a quick break through.

That break through came in 12th minute when left midfielder Jose Torres beat Belize right back Evan Mariano to get a far post cross in from the byline. There, Joe Corona out-jumped his man to head the cross down into the six, where the ball was left for Chris Wondolowski to open the scoring from close range.

(MORE: A few takeaways from the United States’ win)

After another spell of U.S. control, Belize nearly equalized, a freak deflection of a Deon McCauley 24rd minute shot sending the ball looping toward Nick Rimando’s left post. The Real Salt Lake keeper leapt and got a hand to a ball that appeared destined to nail his post.

The U.S. had a number of chances to double their lead near the half hour mark, with Corona firing a ball into Woodrow West’s feet in the 32nd minute before Torres’s 36th minute half volley  went over the bar from six yards out. One minute later, however, a cross from the right from Kyle Beckerman found Wondolowski in middle of the Belize area, his header powered past West to make it 2-0.

Four minutes later, the U.S. gave the goal back. A foul along Belize’s right flank by Landon Donovan gave up a set piece, one converted by a Ian Gaynair header after Elroy Smith found him unmarked just outside Nick Rimando’s six-yard box.

But it was only two minutes until the U.S. restored their lead, with Wondolowski completing his hat trick after diving onto a cross from Corona. Raising this international total to four goals in 13 caps, Wondolowski returned the U.S. to the two-goal lead they’d enjoyed for much of the half, sending his team into intermission up 3-1.

In the 58th minute, the U.S. padded their goal difference when Stu Holden, who had come on for Beckerman at halftime, finished from six yards out, recording his first international goal in four years. Off a far post cross from Corona, Donovan headed down for the still returning midfielder, whose third international goal marked the latest step in his comeback from repeated knee injuries.

For Donovan, it was his 50th international assist, reaching a plateau he passed in goals on Friday with his double against Guatemala. It wasn’t long, through, before the country’s all-time leading scorer added his second assist of the night, his restart from deep on the U.S.’s left flank swinging onto Orozco in the six-yard box, the defender heading home to put the U.S. up four.

In the 77th minute, Donovan added to his scoring record, scoring from the penalty spot after a Belize hand ball, registering his 52nd career goal.

The win leaves the U.S. even on points with Costa Rica at the top of Group C ahead of Sunday’s match with Cuba, but with goal difference being the tournament’s first group stage tiebreaker, the team’s +5 difference leaves the one spot above the Ticos, who beat Cuba by three in the night’s opener.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.