Five key U.S. moments that shaped the United States’ successful World Cup qualification campaign

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – What you will notice about the critical moments as the United States reached a seventh consecutive World Cup: so many are clustered around that March turning point, as a team that could have easily wandered off the so-called Road to Rio found its better self and put things right.

(As for “Five key moments …” Clearly, clinching over Mexico qualifies as a key moment; but as that seems so obvious, and it happened just a few hours ago, meaning we’ve written plenty about it already, we drilled down a little further and picked something else.)

Sept. 11, 2012: U.S. beats Jamaica

The team had lost in Jamaica just days earlier, and the chorus of Jurgen Klinsmann doubters was getting louder. A loss that night in Columbus could have left the United States in a real tizzy, struggling mightily just to get out of the semifinal round. Plus, the symbolic weight of losing on 9/11 would have been a further sore spot to deal with. But the United States dominated the visitors that night, and Herculez Gomez’s free kick goal sealed the deal.

March 18, 2013: U.S. arrives into Denver

U.S. players and coaches arrived into Denver just as The Sporting News piece fell, pulling back the covers on some unpleasant business inside Camp Klinsmann. The least flattering parts of the story were or were not accurate, depending on whom you ask, but there was clearly something not quite right inside the locker room.

Meetings were had, things were said and, in the end, the entire camp seemed to benefit from that cathartic moment. They found a way to bond – even if was over their public outing of their inability to fully bond. Klinsmann and some of the players may not say so publicly, the United States national team benefitted from the story, getting things out in the open. (And what a talker it was for the rest of us.)

source: Getty ImagesMarch 22, 2013: U.S. beats Costa Rica in the Snow Clasico

Of course, the renewed sense of togetherness and good feeling could only “take” through a win over Costa Rica. And what a surreal night it was, as heavy snow blanketed the Dicks Sporting Goods Park field in a way that will never be forgotten, with something that only resembled soccer being played through all the fluffy white stuff. The Ticos were incensed, but never mind that.

Jermaine Jones had his best night in a U.S. shirt (finally demonstrating his value to U.S. supporters, who were understandably having trouble seeing it) and victory was had through an early Clint Dempsey goal … and what an important victory it was.

March 22, 2013: U.S. draws with Mexico

The scoreless draw with Mexico at fabled Azteca may not look as impressive now, given El Tri’s mighty struggles of the moment. But it was a big deal then, not only as a rare point earned at Azteca Stadium, but in helping sow further chaos in the Mexican camp.

Don’t forget, the United States’ was making significant changes, still ushering in the Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler era at center back, with former captain Carlos Bocanegra having to step aside. And Brad Guzan was in goal for the injured Tim Howard, so critical squad depth was being built at the same time.

Honestly, a win at Azteca a few months prior was just as important. It was just a friendly, but the historic 1-0 win that day did two things: It demonstrated to Klinsmann’s team they could, without a doubt, beat Mexico at Azteca. That helped tremendously in the March draw.

And as the positive results in friendlies piled up (a win at Italy, a huge win over Scotland, etc.) the messages that Klinsmann was steadily delivering were taking hold. Players were “buying in.”

June 7, 2013: Jozy Altidore scores again

Jozy Altidore’s ongoing success of that moment – he scored in a 1-0 win over Jamaica in Kingston – was emblematic of the overall program’s swell of success.

He was on a serious roll. The team was on a serious roll. The United States followed that result by traveling to Seattle and never giving poor Panama a moment to breath in a commanding 2-0 win. The strong stuff carried over as another crew of players propped up the highly successful Gold Cup bid, and the dash for World Cup 2014 in Brazil seemed to gain unstoppable momentum through that lofty June-July progression of accomplishment.

 

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.