David Alaba, Jermaine Jones

What we learned from United States versus Austria

  • Jozy Altidore isn’t finishing … but he’s still contributing

We know Jozy Altidore can score. He just came off one of the best years a U.S. striker has ever lived.

Obviously, confidence is a big part of this scoring thing, and it may become an increasingly worrisome spot for the Sunderland striker. But for now, Altidore continues to be a bother on opposition defenses. He certainly was on Tuesday at Vienna’s Ernst-Happel Stadium – and with benefit of the doubt firmly in pocket on the scoring front, that’s good enough for now.

He was busy in making himself available, which is always essential and never exactly easy in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 (Tuesday’s alignment for manager Jurgen Klinsmann). And like Friday against Scotland, Altidore came close a couple of times. So even if the guy is not scoring at the moment for the United States, it’s not like he’s wildly off target.

And wouldn’t it help if the man could get a little bit of service from wide areas? At times Tuesday, Altidore must have felt like he was (Eee-gads!) back at Sunderland.

Which brings us to our second point …

  • The flanks have issues

If Alejandro Bedoya on the right and Brek Shea on the left got off a good cross Tuesday, then I missed it.

Which is really disappointing, considering that both U.S. players needed a big night. The opportunity is there because all the U.S. attacking strength right now is right up the gut, so precious little of it from the wide areas.

(Fabian Johnson could do something about this. So could Landon Donovan … but they have to get healthy. So, uh , get healthy.)

Bedoya has been getting prime minutes lately, but he just isn’t doing much to justify Klinsmann’s ongoing faith. Tuesday, like Friday against Scotland, was full of cutting back onto his left foot. Which is odd … a right-wing man who doesn’t seem to want to cross with his right foot. (Presumably, Altidore thinks so, too.)

In fairness, neither wide man got the ball in good spots Tuesday. Shea didn’t, although some of that was his own doing, as he some tactical inexperience showed.

Shea must learn to vary his positioning some, moving in and out, rather than remaining out wide all the time, predictably so. That makes it easier for defenders and midfielders to shut down passing lanes into him – which means he gets fewer chances to gallop past defenders with those long legs.

The bottom line on it all was that everything was going through Altidore and Aron Johannsson, who was given a shot as a central, attacking midfielder. Which brings us to …

  • Aron Johannsson showed enough in his new role

The young Alkmaar man, a recent U.S. convert from Iceland, has been impressive as a striker in his first few appearances as a Yank. So Klinsmann assigned Johannsson a new role Tuesday, as a playmaker tucked behind Altidore. He had plenty of room to operate since Michael Bradley played just a little further back than usual, a fellow holding mid in a 4-2-3-1 rather than more of a linker in a 4-3-3.

So some early trouble wasn’t in the spacing, but in the touch. Johannsson looked nervous initially, losing the ball four times within the game’s first 13 minutes. The field was slick, and it certainly wasn’t easy out there. Jermaine Jones lost the ball a lot, too. In other words, pretty much the same old, same old there.

But Johannsson did ease into the night. His shot from about 24 yards about 15 minutes in troubled Austrian goalkeeper Robert Almer and seemed to settle the young U.S. prospect, and he worked the channels adequately from there.

It wasn’t a signature night for the man born in Alabama and raised in Iceland. But he keeps showing enough. There is enough control in tight spaces, enough vision and enough speed of thought to keep us all excited. He’s 23 … not exactly a youngster, but hardly a finished product, either. And every time Johannsson steps on the field, his case for a place among the final 23 for Brazil seems to grow stronger.

  • Jermaine Jones gonna Jermaine Jones

Jones’ game-by-game assessment checklist: Lots of turnovers — check. Do something impulsive, potentially harmful to your team and just kind of silly, like give a little slap to an opponent, as Tuesday — check.

Well, we covered this ground before. Nothing new to see here … so let’s just move on.

  • John Brooks will be good … someday

With Goeff Cameron pushed out wide, John Brooks got his second start as a U.S. center back, this time alongside Omar Gonzalez.

Brooks had trouble here and there with positioning, but the foibles looked like teachable moments. It’s not like he cannot cope, in other words.

Brooks stepped aggressively toward the slippery Marc Janko when he might have been better to hold the line, and other times he needed to be closer to Austria’s top striker rather than further away.

But the tools all seem to be there, and his passing from the back was sufficiently varied and technical. He’s not ready to challenge Matt Besler just yet as Gonzalez’s central partner – but the 20-year-old German-American isn’t that far, either.

(MORE: NBC highlights from Tuesday’s 1-0 loss)

(MORE: Video of Geoff Cameron’s goal for the United States … that wasn’t counted)

(MORE: Geoff Cameron certainly helped himself with a good night)

(MORE: U.S. finishes 2013 with a 1-0 loss to Austria)

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from MLSSoccer.com:

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).