U.S. forward Donovan celebrates his second goal of the game against Guatemala with teammates Wondolowski and Holden during their friendly soccer match in San Diego

Cuba up next for United States national team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup

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Cuba is likely to pose a little more threat today than little Belize could to the United States’ stab at dominance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage – but only a little bit more.

There are definitely tougher tasks ahead in the three-week tournament to crown a regional champion in North and Central America and the Caribbean, they are just slow to arrive for Jurgen Klinsmann’s men, who made quick work of its first match, a 6-1 win in Portland.

The team relocated south to Salt Lake City for today’s contest against Cuba, which had  its own troubles in a 3-0 loss to Costa Rica to open the Gold Cup.

It did take the Ticos of Costa Rica 51 minutes to break through on Tuesday, finally bettering the Cuban back line and beating Cuban goalkeeper Odelin Molina, who looked suspect on more than one of the goals.

”We got a little bit disorganized in the second half, which cost us the result,” Cuban manager Walter Benitez said.

More of the same will surely cost Cuba goals Saturday when the teams line up at Rio Tinto Stadium just outside of Salt Lake City. (Kickoff is set  for 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel.) That’s because fate has intervened to stockpile the U.S. lineup with two or three attackers who might not be around otherwise.

Klinsmann has a “B” team for this tournament, giving some of the top men in the U.S. player pool a few weeks off before they get back into league play in Europe. More accurately, he “mostly” has a “B” team.

Turns out, the national team’s all-time leader in goals and assists, Landon Donovan, needed re-introduction into the national team after his well-documented time away from pro soccer. So he was around to strike twice in a 6-0 rout of Guatemala eight days ago, and then to chip in a goal and two assists in an equally dominant 6-1 win over Belize to open the Americans’ Gold Cup account

With the two assists, Donovan became the first national team man record 50 career goals and 50 assists. Not bad for a “B” team type, eh?

Then there’s Stuart Holden, who would definitely be among the first 16-18 players in the U.S. pool but for those career-threatening injuries that stripped away almost two years from the versatile midfielder. The Gold Cup is also Holden’s re-introduction.

(MORE: Player ratings from the win over Guatemala)

(MORE: Player ratings from the 6-0 win over Belize)

Even if the opposition is decidedly of the lightweight variety, Holden’s first two extensive runs in the national team shirt have been wonderfully encouraging for all.

“For me now it’s not a matter of being back, it’s a matter of getting better than that,” Holden said after playing 45 minutes against Belize. “I want to be better than I was before. I want to reach new heights that I didn’t before my injury. In terms of being back, that word is overplayed. I’m there. It’s just a matter of fine tuning and taking it to the next level.”

Brek Shea has also appeared threatening along the U.S. left side in the matches of the last eight days. He was a first-choice type when Klinsmann took the U.S. post almost two years ago, but lost his way amid a string of injuries and a move to Stoke City that has yet to pay dividends.

Klinsmann has personnel choices, like whether to bring Oguchi Onyewu back into the central defense. And whether to get Herculez Gomez back into the starting lineup, which could come at the expense of Chris Wondolowski, who had three goals in a hige night  in Portland against Belize.

With a tougher match coming up against Costa Rica, Klinsmann also has the option of using the match to rest some of the starters and introduce some younger types, like MLS scoring sensation Jack McInerney, who is in his first camp with the senior national team.

“The decisions for Gooch (Onyewu) and Herc (Gomez) were based on the fact that they’ve had knee issues in the past and we didn’t want to risk anything on the turf field,” Klinsmann said in explaining some of Tuesday’s lineup choices. “The same thing with Stuart Holden was that if we need you, you’ll come off the bench when things open up a little bit. There are always situations when it’s not that kind of style in the game and others have the opportunity. Wondo realizes every minute he’s on the field that he has an opportunity, and he better take it, and he did very well.”

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.