Looking at the calendar, contemplating Stuart Holden’s recovery and World Cup 2014 prospects

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It’s not just the soccer aspect – because most U.S. supporters certainly believed his versatile skill set and midfield drive would make the United States better at World Cup 2014.

And it’s not just the “life isn’t fair” aspect – that the guy just cannot catch a break injury-wise, now on his third major recovery in three years.

It’s also the infallibly positive attitude Holden has maintained through all this. Even after Monday’s awful news, the worst-fears-confirmed announcement that Holden had indeed suffered a torn ACL, there he was, preternaturally hopeful and brave, staring down the awfulness of it all:

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He also Tweeted out the photo you see upper right on this post. Good on the man. His ability to rise above the lameness of fate and his refusal to feel sorry for himself is a lesson for us all.

But here is the grim news as we look at the calendar – along with the less attractive element of my job, the truth telling as best as I can:

ACL recovery is generally a 6-9 month process. It can be done in six months, if all goes well; Fellow U.S. international Omar Gonzalez reminded us of that last year, although he needed another month or so to get back to his most effective version.

But for Holden, given all the previous knee issues, a six-month recovery is asking an awful lot. Nine months might even sound optimistic.

A nine-month recovery would put Holden back on the field in April. Even then, considering how long he would have been away from the game, considering the physical trauma the inner working of his knees and legs have endured, looking at the recent recovery efforts, considering some of the technical aspects of Holden’s game  that clearly still required some polish even after almost a month back on the field …

It’s just difficult to see Holden being ready for the 2014 World Cup.

I know that is not what anybody wants to hear. And in all honesty, I’d love to be wrong on this one. But that’s the way I see it today.

U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann would surely be hesitant to use a roster spot unless Holden has proven his readiness by May of 2013, when the 23 spots will be announced and the pre-tournament camp will commence. It’s not just that Holden must be fit and polished enough for professional soccer by then. He has to be World Cup ready by then. That is a very different level.

I think back to Charlie Davies and his devastating injuries. I wrote well before the 2010 World Cup roster announcement that Davies could not possibly be ready … and the reader contempt poured in. Weeks later, more incredulity rained down on Bob Bradley and the U.S staff for not taking Davies to South Africa.

Then, all the Bradley critics pretty much disappeared quietly when they actually saw a greatly diminished version of Davies play in MLS.

Emotionally, these are apples and oranges, I know. Fairly or unfairly, there was always a feeling in some corners that Davies had brought some of it on himself. No one has ever said such a thing with Holden; Again, it’s just a huge bummer for everyone.

Speaking of bummers, here is something else nobody wants to hear: John O’Brien.

As in, let’s forget for a second about World Cup 2014 and just hope that Holden doesn’t become the next O’Brien, the World Cup 2002 standout for the United States, who was 26 years old during his final injury-spared season for Ajax.

Chronic injuries forced O’Brien out of the game; he was done by 2006 at age 29.

As for Holden, who is 27, let’s just hope it doesn’t go there. He has good years left in the game, at Bolton FC or somewhere. Let’s hope Holden, with all his brave resilience, gets healthy and can enjoy a few good professional seasons.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.