Aston Villa 0-2 Everton: visitors emerge the victors on various fronts (video)

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Romelu Lukaku vs. Christian Benteke. Tim Howard vs. Brad Guzan. Everton vs. Aston Villa — and it was Everton that emerged victorious. The win moves Everton into third place, although if either Chelsea or Manchester City grab all three points on Sunday, they’ll slip down into fourth. As for the Villa, it’s down to 14th — and it’s time to start evaluating those that stand in front of Guzan.

Everton’s visit to Villa Park was billed as a “Battle of the Belgians”, yet it was the American goalkeepers that received the majority of the attention, in the first half, anyway. That 45 ended scoreless, but not for want of trying. It was Romelu Lukaku who got things started, waiting to get on the end of a cross, but Aston Villa center back Ron Vlaar did just enough to put him off. Less than ten minutes later, on the other end, fellow Belgian Christian Benteke worked his way inside the area. Seamus Coleman gave him a clip, Benteke went a-tumbling and the referee immediately pointed to the spot.

Benteke himself stepped up to take the penalty, with every Villa fan certain their side would be taking an early lead. The big striker sent his strike to his left, but Tim Howard was ready. The American goalkeeper went diving, using his left hand to push the shot up and over the bar. The resulting corner came to nothing, and the match remained scoreless.

Both Americans had to work hard for the rest of the half to ensure the ball remained out of the net. Howard went diving once more to keep a low shot from Benteke out of the bottom corner. On the other end, Brad Guzan need to be at his best to stop a sharp kick from Lukaku.

But Guzan couldn’t keep out Lukaku forever. In the 68th minute, Everton’s Belgian struck gold. Aston Villa’s defense, weakened by injury to Antonio Luna, fell apart, as they could not work out whether to trail Lukaku or substitute Leon Osman (hint: always Lukaku). Lukaku took advantage, directing his shot between Vlaar and Ciaran Clark. Guzan could do nothing to stop the sharp strike, which landed in the bottom left corner of goal.

Howard, however, was content to confirm his standing as America’s number one keeper, refusing to allow an equalizer. After Gabby Agbonlahor forced the Everton man into a fine save in the 75th minute, Villa looked to be out of ideas. So it was really no surprise when Everton got another minutes later. This time it was Osman himself, sending his shot in from the edge of the area after collecting it from Gareth Barry.

Aston Villa: Guzan, Bacuna, Vlaar, Baker, Westwood, Weimann, Luna (Clark 45), Delph, Agbonlahor, Benteke, Tonev (Helenius 77)

Subs not used: Steer, El Ahmadi, Sylla, Kozak, Lowton

Everton: Howard, Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Baines, McCarthy, Barry, Mirallas (Deulofeu 90), Barkley (Osman 60), Pienaar (Naismith 80), Lukaku

Subs not used: Joel, Jelavic, Oviedo, Stones

Goals: Lukaku 68′, Osman 81′

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Reports: Jonathan Dos Santos set to join Giovani on Galaxy

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Double Dos Santos DPs in Tinseltown?

That’s again the rumor out of Spain, where Jonathan Dos Santos has reportedly left Villarreal camp with permission to negotiate with the LA Galaxy.

Dos Santos would join his brother Giovani in a move which would not only increase the Galaxy’s attacking portfolio but give the club another feather in the cap as it attempts to ward off incoming Los Angeles FC in the race for the hearts of L.A. soccer supporters.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up in Gold Cup Final? ]

It would be the second time Jonathan joined his brother on a squad, and the third time the two were professional teammates. Both joined Barcelona’s academy in 2002.

Jonathan posted two goals and three assists in La Liga last season, leading the team in key passes per game with 1.3. He added a goal and an assist in UEFA Europa League play, where he also registered a hemorrhagic 2.6 giveaways per contest.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt the younger Dos Santos brother would shine in MLS, where he could set up his brother and Romain Alessandrini to feast on defenses, and maybe even help Gyasi Zardes find his form.

How might the USMNT line up in the Gold Cup Final?

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The United States men’s national team became the favorite to win the Gold Cup when Bruce Arena called up more than 500 caps worth of experience after the group stage, but there’s one group that wasn’t improved at all by the legendary MLS coach, and that’s defense.

So while Michael Bradley and Tim Howard certainly help the unit take shape and Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore all improve the side’s speed, passing, and creativity, no move was made to help a back line that’s done anything but thrive in this tournament.

Most of this is not Arena’s fault. John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, and Geoff Cameron were given time to focus on their European careers, and “next batch” backs Tim Ream and Timothy Chandler fit into that overseas bunch as well.

[ MORE: Palace signs Ajax CB/DCM/LB ]

That doesn’t change the fact that the easy weakness for the USMNT right now has a big chance to be exposed by opponents Jamaica, who — as funny as this sounds — are possibly a worse match-up for the Yanks than the side it upset in Mexico’s ‘B Teamers’.

While player ratings are far from the be-all, end-all, we’ve had two writers handle the Americans’ five matches of Gold Cup. Here are the ratings for the eight backs on the roster by appearance.

Jorge Villafana — 6.5, 5, 6; Omar Gonzalez — 6, 5, 7, 5; Matt Miazga — 7; Matt Besler — 7.5, 6, 8; Eric Lichaj — 5, 7; Justin Morrow — 6, 5; Graham Zusi — 6, 5.5, 4; Matt Hedges — 5, 5.

Only Besler has avoided a dud so far, and keep in mind that Arena has not subbed a back in the tournament and also loves Gonzalez.

[ WAYBACK: How U.S. lost to Jamaica in 2015 Gold Cup semi ]

Dealing with speedy Jamaica is a challenge for a group that’s looked pretty mixed up when it comes to dealing with counter attacks. This is especially challenging for one player, Matt Hedges, who is better suited for teams that want to attack through the air.

As for the midfielders and forwards, remember that Arena pulled Paul Arriola after 66 minutes in the semifinal and let Darlington Nagbe and Jordan Morris go all 90.

Considering all that, here’s how Arena may try to win the Gold Cup and put one American foot in Qatar for the 2021 Confederations Cup (That’s still happening, by the way).

Howard

Lichaj — Gonzalez — Besler — Villafana

Bradley — McCarty

Arriola — Corona — Zardes

Altidore

As a bonus, here’s how we think the subs may play out given player use in the run-up to the final. Call this between the 65-80 minute marks, and it can work with the lead or pushing for an equalizer or winner:

Howard

Lichaj — Gonzalez — Besler — Villafana

 Acosta/Pontius — Bradley — McCarty — Nagbe

Altidore — Morris

Ajax reunion at Palace as De Boer signs center back

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Crystal Palace has added much needed depth and youth to its corps of center backs with 20-year-old Ajax man Jairo Riedewald.

The left back in Ajax’s UEFA Europa League loss to Manchester United, Riedewald completed better than 92 percent of his passes in Eredivisie play. He also nabbed 2.2 interceptions per match.

[ MORE: Russia’s straw stadium ]

Fellow Palace center backs James Tompkins, Scott Dann, and Damien Delaney average age is 31.3.

Riedewald played for Palace boss Frank De Boer at Ajax. From Palace’s official site:

“He will be an excellent addition to our squad, Jairo is a young player but already has a lot of experience. I know he is looking forward to playing in the Premier League.”

Riedewald played the majority of his Eredivisie matches at center back, but has 18 appearances as a defensive midfielder and another 12 at left back.

He’s Palace’s second addition of this summer, the other being a loan of Ruben Loftus-Cheek from Chelsea.

Russian farmer’s straw stadium pokes fun at World Cup costs

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KRASNOYE, Russia (AP) Russia is desperate to control its spending on the 2018 World Cup, and a farmer might just have the answer – straw.

In a project straight out of the “Three Little Pigs” fairytale, Roman Ponomaryov has built a straw replica of the 43 billion ruble ($700 million) stadium in St. Petersburg which will host World Cup semifinals.

His arena made of 4,500 straw bales comes with tiered seating for 300 and flagpoles. It hosted its first tournament – for local teams only – last weekend using modified soccer rules.

[ VIDEO: Man United beat Real Madrid ] 

“It’s good to get people excited and create a sports atmosphere ahead of the World Cup,” Ponomaryov said in a recent interview.

The real St. Petersburg Stadium has drawn ire for its cost, corruption scandals, delays, and workers’ deaths.

Ponomaryov is a fan of the Zenit St. Petersburg club and says he modeled his straw stadium on Zenit’s new home in a gentle dig at the problems around the construction.

“It seemed pretty strange … how the cost of the stadium and its construction timeframe were increasing,” he said. Russia’s total World Cup budget is around $10.7 billion.

Zenit has accepted the straw stadium with good humor, offering Ponomaryov a ticket to a game at the real thing.

The harvest will keep him on the farm for the next few weeks, though, and he has in mind another project – organizing a Straw World Cup.