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Quick Six: Januzaj’s breakout, best striker tandem, and other Premier League storylines

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1. A NEW STAR IS BORN AT UNITED?

Out of the darkness came a new hero, an unlikely 18-year-old thrust to instant stardom amid the uncertainty that’d enveloped the start of David Moyes’s tenure. Can Adnan Januzaj really be the savior he’s being portrayed as after his two goals in Sunderland delivered Manchester United from   potential disaster?

Here’s teammate Michael Carrick after United’s 2-1, come-from-behind victory:

“In some ways I think he’s gone on the big stage now,” he said. “We noticed a big improvement with him [in pre-season] and he just looked a proper player. At half-time we told him to get in the box a bit more because there were chances for him.

“He’s got so much ability, he’s got a great attitude. He can be anything he wants to be – he’s that good.

“It’s just a start, I’m sure he’s not going to get carried away with it.”

Many outlets have taken the “anything he wants to be” part and ran with it. After all, narratives  have to be fueled, never mind Carrick was perfectly sanguine will delivering his player speak. Januzaj is a teammate, he’s young, and he was just coming off a two-goal performance. Of course you’re going to get some distortable quotes out of Carrick.

With Januzaj, there’s as much sizzle as steak right now. It’s impossible to miss the potential in the Belgian/Albanian/Serbian/Kosovar (he’d be eligible to represent any of those nations), but Januzaj’s new star’s also a function of United’s current plight. He’s the contract to the conflict between expectations and form.

That conflict was apparent on Saturday. For the first 45 minutes, a Sunderland team that was hard work and little else was the better side. In the second half, Manchester United woke up. In time, this will look like a good win — three points where other sides may get none — but considering what Manchester City and Arsenal showed on their trips north, United’s Black Cat test illustrated just how far behind they are.

[MORE: Sunderland 1-2 Manchester United: Januzaj’s second half double lifts Red Devils.]

2. SUÁREZ, STURRIDGE SHINE, BUT ONE PIECE MISSING FOR LIVERPOOL

Whether they maintain this level or not, Liverpool’s Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge are the Premier League’s best striking duo at the moment. The tandem combined for two Liverpool goals in the Reds’ 3-1 win over visiting Crystal Palace, and after the weekend’s dust settled, Liverpool sat second, with only goal difference keeping them from the top.

Brendan Rodgers seems eager to temper any undo enthusiasm, though:

“It reminded me of a performance I had when I first became a manager, when I knew it had to be about more than just winning. At Watford we beat Swansea 2-0 at Vicarage Road. Everyone was elated and it was named the performance of the week but I was so disappointed because we didn’t keep the ball well. This was like that. Our movement and combinations in the final third was good but the lack of control behind that was very disappointing.”

It’s harsh, but there were obvious weaknesses in the Reds’ side on Saturday. Against one of the league’s worst teams, Liverpool too often allowed Crystal Palace to hit their defensive line with speed, the Eagles’ lack of execution (and talent) in the final third the only thing that kept this match from turning into a shootout.

That problem gets solved to a certain extent when Lucas Leiva returns. Without their suspended ball-winner, Liverpool moved Jordan Henderson in from right-wing back, pairing him at the base of midfield with Steven Gerrard. The result was unconvincing. Thankfully, they were only playing Crystal Palace.

The issue does, however, inform the debate as to whether Liverpool are title contenders. Or Champions League contenders, for that matter. With the Reds off to a 5-1-1 start, there are a lot of discussions surrounding the team, all of which come down to quality and depth. Even if you think the Reds have the quality to compete with the preseason contenders (a tough but not impossible argument to make), Saturday illustrated how thin they are. Lose one guy and things don’t exactly fall apart (they did still win 3-1, after all), but holes start to surface.

[MORE: Liverpool 3-1 Crystal Palace: “SAS” on the scoresheet again as Reds romp.]

3. MAYBE POCHETTINO WAS RIGHT ABOUT SOUTHAMPTON

Mauricio Pochettino didn’t say he was going to get Southampton into Champions League this year, and to the extent he said it was a goal, he did so in relation to Europa League. Teams don’t really shoot for the latter, the Saints boss explained. Champions League is everybody’s ambition.

Of course, people ran with it. That’s what happens. A coach of a club like Southampton even mentions Champions League? It goes at the top of the story. Southampton must be targeting Champions League! Welcome to the soccer world.

After this weekend’s action, however, Pochettino’s words took on a different context, with Southampton’s 2-0 win over Swansea vaulting the Saints into fourth place – above Manchester City, Tottenham, and Manchester United.

Seven weeks into the season, it’s too early to know whether Southampton can keep this up, even if a win at Liverpool and five clean sheets provide some reason to think this form can persist. But beyond that Liverpool win, there aren’t many eye-opening results among this year’s score lines. The schedule just hasn’t been that hard.

Don’t overlook Sunday’s result, however. Three years ago, Swansea were Southampton, albeit with a different style. They were the team whose results outstretched their stature while their methods underscored their results. They were the club giving reason to believe there was staying power behind their run.

Sunday’s game may have been a symbolic passing of that torch, with Swansea stumbling to 15th place. Then again, it might be us reading too much into early season results. Regardless, Pochettino continues to give us reason to talk about Southampton.

[MORE: Southampton 2-0 Swansea: Saints go fourth with fifth clean sheet.]

4. MARTIN JOL: STILL WAITING TO EXHALE?

If Martin Jol didn’t win, he was probably gone. We didn’t have any proof, but everything about Fulham’s situation told us the Dutch boss was in a win-or-else situation. His team was drastically under-performing, form that extended from that persisted from the end of last season. They were coming off a bad loss at home (to Cardiff City) and the new owner is coming to town with his NFL team this week. If Jol didn’t beat Stoke at home, Shahid Khan was unlikely to see a silver lining to this cloud he inherited as coach.

Thanks to Darren Bent’s 83rd minute goal, Jol’s likely to get a reprieve, his team having beaten the visiting Potters 1-0. The question is whether he should. Fulham still sit 18th and are coming off a victory that was more obligatory than convincing. A one-goal win at home to visiting Stoke with the squad Jol has? That’s seems like a minimum standard, not a reason to let up. If we had doubts about the Cottagers before, what about the Stoke result makes us believe Fulham are on the right track?

When you’re struggling, you’re thankful for every win you get, so it’s understandable Fulham and their fans have loosened their grips since Saturday. But once the international break’s over, the reality may set in. A one-goal home win over Stoke is obligatory. It’s not progress.

[MORE: Fulham 1-0 Stoke City: Cottagers snare needed win.]

5. BACK TO EARTH FOR EVERTON

How good are Everton? Now we know. Their 3-1 loss at Manchester City wasn’t just their first in league since Roberto Martínez took over. It was a reminder of the limitations he’s inherited.

Take the first goal Everton allowed, a great piece of work from David Silva to Yaya Touré to Álvaro Negredo. The speed, timing, and execution of the move was world-class. It took world-class talents to execute it, and it would have taken world-class talents to stop it. Manchester City had them. Everton did not. Goal, Citizens.

City’s second goal was a brilliant piece finish from Sergio Agüero, who beat Tim Howard far post from a sharp ankle. Everton doesn’t have the type of talent that can finish that ball, and the closest player they have is on loan from Chelsea.

Then there was the penalty that led to the third goal, with Seamus Coleman judged to have taken down Pablo Zabaleta. Coleman’s a fine player, but he didn’t have enough to stay in front of Zabaleta without leaning into him. You could argue that the penalty was soft, but another defender may have avoided that position to begin with.

Not many, though. Most defenders are going to get caught by that Zabaleta run, just as very few strikers will finish like Aguero and only a series of elite players can complete City’s first goal.

But that’s the difference between that level and Everton’s. The Toffees have very good players and a seemingly excellent coach, but sometimes, talent wins out.

[MORE: Manchester City 3-1 Everton: The last of the unbeatens fall.]

6. FOR SPURS, LACK OF GOALS WORSE THAN THE WEST HAM LOSS

The scoreline’s troubling: 0-3 at home to West Ham United. That Spurs could only put four shots on Jussi Jääskeláinen should be just as worrisome. This is a team that came into the game with six goals in six games, and on Sunday, André Villas-Boas’s squad didn’t do enough to improve that record.

Yes, be concerned about the lopsided nature of the loss, but also grasp this basic fact: Until this team starts scoring goals, they can’t be considered a serious contender for the league’s top four spots. Once it happens, we can make an assessment about this crew Levy, Baldini, and Villas-Boas have assembled. Right now, we have no idea what that end product will look like. .

In the interim, Spurs have given away three points they should have had. What are the odds they’ll want those back at year’s end? Especially if Liverpool challenges for top four? And Southampton proves as pesky as their rhetoric?

Today’s game was only one result. These things happen. Six goals in seven games? That’s the bigger problem.

[MORE: Tottenham 0-3 West Ham: Three second half goals give Hammer upset.]

Mike Francesa rants about Sports Illustrated’s Copa America coverage, Lionel Messi cover

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MAY 11: Copa America 2016 is displayed during the Soccerex Americas Forum Mexico City Day 1 at Camino Real Polanco Hotel on May 11, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Victor Chavez/Getty Images for Soccerex)
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Clueless clown Sports talk host Mike Francesa is known for being a crotchety, opinionated old man who has trouble adapting to changing times.

He’s had plenty of sparkling moments where he displays his ignorance room to grow when it comes to the world outside of New York sports, such as his knowledge of the Catholic hierarchy or his love for synergistic network promotion. He is the Tommy Wiseau of sports broadcasting.

So when Mike’s beloved childhood magazine Sports Illustrated soiled its cover with a picture of Lionel Messi, whom apparently he nor any of his staffers know anything about beyond his last name, the man was enraged.

You can listen to the whole segment here. Let’s break this gold mine down.

I got my SI, and the cover is “Summer of Soccer.” Where is the summer of soccer going to be? I have no idea. Now, I know I get accused of knowing nothing about soccer, because I don’t. I know absolutely zero about soccer, and that’s more than I want to know. Sorry! Just being honest. It’s a little late for me and soccer.

So…uh…why are you talking about it then?

On the eve of ‘Copa America’ SI has how many pages in its magazine this week…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…11…pages on this event. 11 pages, and I can’t find anybody who’s ever heard of it. 11 pages…you gotta be kidding me! No wonder they can’t give them away. This is a magazine that, as a child, I used to read it from cover to cover.”

So Mike thinks magazines don’t sell because they cover soccer, and he thinks that because he never read about soccer as a child, he shouldn’t have to read about that dang sport now.

He proceeds to then ask his cohost/producer/sidekick if he’d ever heard of Lionel Messi, to which his cohost/producer/sidekick sheepishly says he’s heard of him but only by his last name. Let’s just skip that part.

I’m sure to soccer fans this is an enormous event, which God bless them, I have no issue with. But mainstream America is not paying…doesn’t even know…if I go out and poll the newsroom, no one’s ever heard of this event. My guys in here didn’t even know what it was…nor have I! Nobody’s ever mentioned it. Has anyone ever called you [producer] to promote the Copa America on my show? [he says no]. If you’re going to promote something in sports you’re going to do it on this show. Bottom line is no one’s ever done that.

Guys, we should all just go home, we forgot to promote soccer on Francesa. Fuggetaboutit.

He then stumbled through reading what the Copa America actually is and what it entails, with an overly forced exasperated tone just to prove how frustrated he is with Sports Illustrated. Shame on them! Oh, and in this part he calls FIFA “Fie-fuh,” confuses the Olympics with an actual team that’s playing, and thinks it will be played in France. Yawn. Let’s wrap this up.

To spend 12 pages in SI on that? I mean, listen, I understand there are people here who love soccer, and they’ll be glued to it, and watch it on TV, which I understand, but man, how is that going to be part of mainstream America? I don’t get it.

You know, I don’t get it either. We should all just go home. Go home everyone! Fun’s over, we’ve been found out.

I left out the part where he calls Sports Illustrated “a sad reminder of the of a different world.” Ironic considering who it’s coming from.

For the record, callers lit Francesa up after this, so some justice was served. If you can’t get enough of the Francesa soccer shenanigans, check out this MLS read he attempts to get through, which takes him two and a half minutes and our hero realizes that NYCFC doesn’t have a “nickname” and that David Villa is pronounced like Pancho Villa. Stuff of legends.

Cellar dwelling Houston Dynamo, Owen Coyle decide to part ways

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10:  Head Coach Owen Coyle of the Houston Dynamo smiles prior to an MLS soccer game against Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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A week ago, Owen Coyle was whispered as possibly leaving the Houston Dynamo to lead Celtic.

With that opening filled by Brendan Rodgers, the Dynamo and Coyle cut ties anyway.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

Coyle struggled to pick up the pieces left behind by Dominic Kinnear in Houston, and the Dynamo are dead last in Major League Soccer after a quarter of the season.

On Wednesday night, the Dynamo announced that Coyle wanted to be closer to his family in England and would be leaving the club immediately.

From HoustonDynamo.com:

“I asked Chris (Canetti) if I could speak with him today and I explained to him the challenge of being away from my family and how we all want the best for Houston Dynamo,” Coyle said. “I want to wish all members of the staff, from owner Gabriel Brener to president Chris Canetti to general manager Matt Jordan, everyone has been such a source of support, along with the players and the technical staff. I’d like to thank the Dynamo supporters, who have been outstanding. We have a brilliant club, and I have no doubt success is just around the corner.”

The Dynamo went 14W-21L-11T during his reign, but have also been severely lacking in talent. The long delay from acquiring Cubo Torres to getting him on the pitch was one of the many things that frustrated progress in Houston.

Coyle is best known for his time with Bolton Wanderers, though that ended early in a Championship season following relegation. Houston is 3W-7L-2T this season, and has Vancouver up next.

Wade Barrett and a pair of Dynamo assistants will lead the club in the interim.

Three things we learned from the late USMNT win over Ecuador

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Frickson Erazo #3 of Ecuador battle for control of the ball against Clint Dempsey #8 of the United States in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Darlington Nagbe was the star against Ecuador, giving the United States the late 1-0 win in Frisco. There wasn’t much to take away from the match, but one attacking setup certainly performed better than the other, and that was the biggest talking point.

[ RECAP – United States earns late win over Ecuador ]

Three things we learned

1 – When the US plays good defense, it has a creativity problem.

This isn’t anything new, as teams who sit back obviously will have less of the ball. But this isn’t exactly that. The US defended quite well through the first 45 minutes, and they held the majority of the possession, but they failed to do much with it. It resulted in…

That. Yuck. It was horrid to watch, and is frustrating given the level of competition being faced compared to the level of competition to come.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings against Ecuador ]

2 – Does the Pulisic-Wood-Nagbe lineup have more to offer?

The United States began with Clint Dempsey isolated up front, supported by Gyasi Zardes and Graham Zusi, with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones sitting deep. That lineup was utter trash in the attacking half, producing one good chance in the first half which Zardes flubbed. When Klinsmann switched things up soon after halftime, bringing on Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe, and Alejandro Bedoya, the attack began to show life. It certainly helped that all those substitutes were placed in their natural positions, something not always a given for Klinsmann. This may give the US manager a good look at the more creative setup, and could bode well for the aforementioned players heading into the Copa America. There are obvious downsides to this lineup, such as lack of experience, but it might be worth the risk, especially with those players much more likely to be contributors in 2018 given their age.

3 – Christian Pulisic can actually be a useful piece this summer

On for the final half-hour, the young Borussia Dortmund winger provided positive touches along the left flank. He created a few opportunities for Bobby Wood and Graham Zusi, a promising development to push back against the “he’s not ready” crowd. Pulisic was electric down the left, and was vital in the push the last 20 minutes. It’s just 20 minutes, but it’s a promising small sample size.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s late win over Ecuador

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Brad Guzman #1 of the United States blocks a shot against Ecuador in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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“Fits and starts” is a good way to describe the United States friendly against Ecuador in Texas on Wednesday, a match that ended 1-0 to the hosts after a controlling second half.

The Yanks took more than 20 minutes to get their act together, and then had a bit of trouble penetrating La Tricolor’s back four.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

The second half, however, was straight-up dominant. The lack of finish was troubling, but Darlington Nagbe took care of that. The Portland Timbers man not only scored, but also piled vindication on supporters who couldn’t wait to see him up high, and Michael Bradley deep.

And Christian Pulisic, well, he’s a swoon-worthy talent.

STARTING XI

Brad Guzan — 8 — Didn’t have a ton to do, but did it very well. A welcome improvement from the Aston Villa keeper.

Fabian Johnson — 6 — Probably deserves a 7, but that missed trap of a Jermaine Jones cross was just so ugly.

Steve Birnbaum — 6 — Very shaky early, but settled into the game.

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Christian Noboa #6 of Ecuador takes a shot against John Brooks #6 of the United States and Brad Guzman #1 of the United States in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
 (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

John Brooks (off 78′) — 7 — Played very well after a weak opening 10 minutes or so. Still takes chances like the center back version of Jermaine Jones, but those chances came off well on Wednesday.

DeAndre Yedlin — 6 — Hit and miss from the right back, who had a heck of a task in dealing with Jefferson Montero. Still, the defensive improvement is impossible to ignore.

Kyle Beckerman (off HT) — 6 — Might’ve picked up an injury. Hard-nosed as usual, but feels like he’s a single lost step away from not fitting the bill.

Jermaine Jones (off 64′) — 6 — Playing as an attack-minded mid with some defensive responsibilities may be the role he was meant to play, and his early second half was promising before subbing off for Bedoya.

Michael Bradley — 7 — No surprise that he — and the States — thrived once Klinsmann moved the Toronto FC man deeper in the midfield.

Gyasi Zardes (off HT) — 5 — The effort was there, as were the runs. The kid works hard and has a brain for the game, but his first touch betrayed him once again. Should’ve been 1-0.

Graham Zusi (off, 88′)– 7 — You know what you’re getting with Zusi, and the Sporting KC man was one of several players who played an assist-worthy ball in this one. Bedoya tapped his 72nd minute pass just wide of the far post.

Clint Dempsey (off 63′) — 5 —  Will be kicking himself for a poor first touch on an early second half cross from Bobby Wood. Didn’t get much service in the first half, but did play a great ball to Zardes.

Substitutes

Darlington Nagbe (on HT) — 8 — This guy. We all knew he had it in him, even Klinsmann after a long enough wait. He was the best player on the pitch in the second half.

Bobby Wood (on HT) — 6 — Missed a few key chances, but set up Nagbe’s winner.

Christian Pulisic (on 63′) — 7 — Dangerous, lively, and that touch. More of him, please.

Alejandro Bedoya (on 64′) — 6 — Should’ve scored, but didn’t. Also probably should’ve started, so we’ll cut him a bit of slack.

Matt Besler (on 78′) — 6 — Totally fine, but Ecuador rarely tested during his tenure.

Michael Orozco (on 88′) — N/A