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Spain: Alexis Sánchez hat trick, battle for fourth highlight La Liga’s return

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With Barcelona’s trip to Atlético Madrid less than a week away, eyes normally fixated on La Liga would be forgiven for looking into the distance, fixating on a battle that could define the Primera División campaign. After this weekend’s results, both Barça and Atleti have 49 points though 18 games. In a league where the leaders are one pace for 103 points, a victory head-to-head match could prove decisive.

This weekend, however, was about the buildup, one that saw Barcelona cruise past visiting Elche while Atlético snared three points from an increasing feisty Málaga. In the process, however, the weekend’s headlines were stolen by another stand out performance from Barça’s supporting cast and a fight slightly farther down the table.

With Messi out, Sánchez shines in Barça route

Lionel Messi was supposed to be back this weekend, but Barcelona decided not to push it. With a mid-week Copa del Rey match against Granada, Messi will have one more chance to get minutes ahead of next Saturday’s visit to the Vicente Calderón. This week, however, Barça would need somebody else to step up, with the returns of Xavi Hernández and Víctor Valdés balancing the continued absence of the team’s biggest star.

source: AP
Alexis Sanchez, after combining for 19 league goals in his first seasons with Barcelona, has already scored 11 times in La Liga’s first 18 rounds. (Photo: AP.)

But just as they did when Pedro Rodríguez went off on Dec. 22, Barcelona got a hat trick from part of its talented if overshadowed supporting cast. Scoring his ninth, 10th, and 11th goals of the season (tying him with Pedro for the team lead), Alexis Sánchez led Barcelona to a 4-0 win over visiting Elche, keeping the Blaugrana first ahead of next week’s showdown in Madrid.

For Sánchez, the performance continues the resurgence he’s experienced under head coach Gerardo Martino, one that’s seen the former Udinese man start to match assumptions that came with his $37 million transfer three years ago. In his first two years, however, Sánchez had only scored 19 league goals, and while that was only one less than the 20 he’d scored in three seasons in Italy, the now-25-year-old was expected to put up bigger numbers in Barcelona’s attack.

As Barça started to morph during its final season under Pep Guardiola, Sánchez’s role in the team became less certain, with a team build around Lionel Messi not having a clear role for the natural winger. At first, he was used as an along-the-line striker, but slowly Barcelona’s ditched that position, allowing Messi to float as a false nine. While on the surface that augers well for somebody whose best role is wide-to-in, Sánchez entered his third year in Catalonia having failed to live up to the hype that carried him to Spain.

Two years later, however, Martino has a more clearly defined step up. When everybody’s healthy, Messi (through the middle) and Neymar (on the left) are givens. The spot on the right, however, is open to competition.

In theory, that means Sánchez and Pedro are competing for a spot. In practice, both players have seen enough time. In 23 combined starts, the duo has scored 22 times. Even by Messi and Neymar’s standards (14 goals in 22 games), that’s stellar production.

Griezmann, Sociedad surge lands La Real on the cusp of fourth

That they finished fourth in May means we should only be so surprised that Real Sociedad find themselves in contention another Champions League spot, but after the struggles Jagoba Arrasate’s team experienced at the start of the season, 2012-13 was increasingly looking like a fairy tale. Winning only once in their first eight league games this season, La Real  were struggling to replicate the success experienced under Philippe Montanier, the French head coach who left for Rennes this summer. Add in an early injury to striker Imanol Agirretxe and some general regression and Real Sociedad looked unlikely to get back to fourth.

source: Getty Images
Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann sits third in La Liga with 12 goals after scoring Sunday against Athletic Bilbao. (Photo: Getty Images.)

After today’s 2-0 win against visiting Athletic Bilbao, however, Arrasate’s team has won five in a row, their only league loss since Oct. 5 coming at the Santiago Bernabeu. Thanks to goals from Antoine Griezmann and Rubén Pardo, Sociedad took full points from the team currently sitting fourth, pulling them within one point of Athletic in the process.

But as remarkable as La Real’s surge has been, Griezmann’s form has been equally stellar. Coming off a season in which the now-22-year-old scored 10 times in league (reaching double-digit goals for the first time), the French-born winger has already netted 12 times this season, the highest non-Diego Costa, non-Cristiano Ronaldo total in Spain. With five goals in six games, the France U-level winger is pushing for a place in Didier Deschamps’ squad for Brazil, even though (thanks in part to a suspension) he’s yet to make a senior-level appearance for Les Bleus.

Carlos Vela’s emergence in San Sebastián has garnered most of the headlines (particularly in this part of the world), but two years younger than his Mexican teammate, Griezmann is the bigger emerging star. Regardless, with their French attacker having found another level, Sociedad are ready to reclaim their Champions League spot, leaving their slow star in fall’s fading distance.

Elsewhere

  • Málaga 0, Atlético Madrid 1 – Koké’s 70th minute goal took full points for Diego Simeone’s team, who ended their hosts’ three-match unbeaten run. Atlético’s +36 goal difference, however, keeps them second behind Barcelona.
  • Valladolid 0, Real Betis 0 – Valladolid move even with 17th place Celta Vigo while failing to claim full points from the league’s last place squad.
  • Valencia 2, Levante 0 – Head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s first game with Los Che saw fellow Argentine Pablo Piatti score the opener just before halftime, with Sofiane Feghouli’s second of the season sealing victory for Valencia.
  • Almeria 3, Granada 0 – The home side moves three points clear of relegation with goals from Sebastián Dubarbier, Verza, and Aleix Vidal. Granada suffers its fourth loss in five.
  • Sevilla 3, Getafe 0 – Ivan Rakitic notched his eighth goal of the season as Unai Emery’s side post moves into sixth place, the team unbeaten in league since Nov. 2.
  • Osasuna 1, Espanyol 0 – Álvaro Cejundo’s 33rd minute goal holds up as the hosts run their unbeaten streak to three.

Others
Barcelona 4, Elche 0
Real Sociedad 2, Athletic Bilbao 0

Monday
Real Madrid vs. Celta Vigo
Rayo Vallecano vs. Villarreal

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 18 16 1 1 53 12 41 9-0-0 7-1-1 49
Atlético Madrid 18 16 1 1 47 11 36 9-0-0 7-1-1 49
Real Madrid 17 13 2 2 49 21 28 7-0-1 6-2-1 41
Athletic 18 10 3 5 26 23 3 7-2-0 3-1-5 33
Real Sociedad 18 9 5 4 35 23 12 6-2-1 3-3-3 32
Sevilla 18 8 5 5 35 29 6 5-2-2 3-3-3 29
Villarreal 17 8 4 5 27 18 9 4-3-2 4-1-3 28
Valencia 18 7 2 9 25 29 -4 5-1-4 2-1-5 23
Getafe 18 7 2 9 20 30 -10 4-2-3 3-0-6 23
Espanyol 18 6 4 8 22 24 -2 4-2-3 2-2-5 22
Málaga 18 5 5 8 19 23 -4 4-0-5 1-5-3 20
Levante 18 5 5 8 17 27 -10 2-3-3 3-2-5 20
Granada 18 6 2 10 15 25 -10 2-0-7 4-2-3 20
Almería 18 5 4 9 20 32 -12 2-3-4 3-1-5 19
Osasuna 18 5 3 10 15 28 -13 3-2-4 2-1-6 18
Elche 18 4 5 9 16 27 -11 2-2-5 2-3-4 17
Celta Vigo 17 4 4 9 21 27 -6 1-4-4 3-0-5 16
Valladolid 18 3 7 8 21 29 -8 2-4-3 1-3-5 16
Rayo Vallecano 17 4 1 12 16 40 -24 2-0-6 2-1-6 13
Betis 18 2 5 11 15 36 -21 2-3-4 0-2-7 11

Klinsmann: USMNT’s Pulisic earning respect with “no-fear” approach

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Christian Pulisic #17 of USA attempts to chip a pass past Guillermo Viscarra #23 of Bolivia late in the second half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Christian Pulisic, whose name was known to only the most ardent of U.S. national team supporters six short months ago, is the fastest rising star in American soccer these days, but you’d never know it just listening to him talk.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking after the USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday — having made a big bit of history of his own in the process — Pulisic seemed to have just walked off the field following just another ordinary game — something you’d be easily tricked into thinking he’d done 500 times thus far in his career.

USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has something of a theory to explain Pulisic’s meteoric rise, from making his Borussia Dortmund debut three months ago, to scoring his first international goal on Saturday: the youngster is fearless — perhaps because he’s not been around the block enough to know any better, but without fear of conscience in the face of any challenge nonetheless.

“I think he is a wonderful kid. He’s grounded, he knows that he has a long way to go, but he has no fear, and this is very important — not having fear, especially when you play in our region (CONCACAF), where it becomes really physical. What you’re going to see next Friday will be very, very physical.”

[ MORE: Three things we learned — USA 4-0 Bolivia | Player ratings ]

On that lack of fear, Pulisic says it’s something that was instilled in him at a very young age, playing soccer and living an ordinary childhood in his hometown of Hershey, Penn., before it became clear that his future was to be anything but ordinary. Fear does seem a foreign concept to the now-three-times-capped USMNT starlet when asked how he’s made the transition from Dortmund Under-19s, to Dortmund first team, to USMNT impact-maker, so seamlessly.

“It’s just what I learned since I was a little kid. My dad taught me no matter what — I would play against these bigger players — to just be myself. I knew that I was good enough, that I had the ability, so I never shy away from any moment and I don’t think anyone should.”

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

The challenges for a 17-year-old earning his stripes on a team chock-full of established stars such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and on and on, are innumerable. From trying to impress Klinsmann and earn a share of first-team minutes, to “making friends” with the senior members of the squad, Pulisic is just doing his best to fit in and prove he can contribute at next week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario — the USMNT’s last major tournament before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“The guys have taken me in, they’re all really nice, and it’s helped me a lot that I’ve been with them a few weeks now. It’s getting more and more comfortable. I’m making more friends. Normally, you’d hang out with some of the younger guys — kind of work your way up. You really have to earn your respects on the field. Off the field, they’re all nice guys.”

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

And yet, with all of that said, an air of naiveté hangs over Pulisic as he talks of becoming the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history, the 17-year-old that he is. Does the magnitude of such an accomplishment register an hour after that record-breaking strike?

“Honestly, no. I’m just living life, living in the moment. It’s cool — stats and stuff are cool — but I want to win this tournament coming up. That’s the overall goal, so I don’t really care too much about being the [youngest] goalscorer.”

Player ratings from a historic, comfortable USMNT win over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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Yes, the United States should beat Bolivia at home, and soundly, but that doesn’t make Saturday’s 4-0 win in Kansas City any less fun.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men throttled Bolivia, picking up the biggest win over a South American foe in national team history while writing in the U.S. men’s record book from an individual standpoint as well.

[ MORE: Match recapThree things we learned ]

Christian Pulisic became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history, and the Americans will be feeling pretty good after improving to 7-1-1 in their last nine games before the start of the Copa America Centenario on Friday in California.

So who showed well? See below:

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 7 — Called on only once or twice, but made the saves. Always hard to know what to score a goalkeeper who doesn’t have much to do. We’ll go with 7.

Matt Besler (off HT) — 7 — Filling in at left back wasn’t a problem for Sporting KC’s center back, and he even pulled off a nifty attacking trick or two.

John Brooks — 6 — Made up for a horrible giveaway by charging into the play to score the Yanks’ second goal. Out of position on a late chance that Guzan handled well.

Geoff Cameron — 7 — This team is so much better when he is healthy. Have to wonder if the Confederations Cup berth would’ve been assured with him last summer.

Michael Orozco (off HT) — 6 — Wasn’t noticed much, and that’s good for him.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

Michael Bradley (off 73′) — 9 — Weird how he’s good in his best position, pinged balls around the field and keeping things moving like a Newton’s cradle.

Jermaine Jones — 6 — Was just fine. Hard as nails and set to make an impact in the Copa America, and made a great takeaway and pass on the Pulisic goal.

Alejandro Bedoya 9 — The Nantes man had two assists, and looked capable of pulling as many strings as he wanted against Bolivia. Showed a hard edge against a nasty Bolivia side, too.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Bobby Wood — Lively and active, even if his finish was off.

Gyasi Zardes (Off, 64′) — 7 — If he wasn’t fighting his first touch, might’ve scored 3 or 4. Two is pretty good, though, right? He’d be a center forward, but Klinsmann needs to know the man up top can handle his first touch better.

Clint Dempsey (Off, 73′) — 6 — By no means bad. Is it too far off to say he’s doing the American version of the waning years of Cuauthemoc Blanco’s Mexican prime?

Subs

Fabian Johnson (On, HT) — 6 — Slow to get back on Bolivia’s only scoring chance.

DeAndre Yedlin (On, HT) — 6 — Like Orozco, had very little to do on the right side.

Christian Pulisic (On, 64′) — 7 — He’s a mouth-watering prospect, and became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Darlington Nagbe (On, 64′) — 7 — His work on Pulisic’s goal was everything MLS fans have been imagining while waiting for Nagbe to be USMNT eligible.

Graham Zusi (On, 73′) — 6 — Game was over when he entered, and did just fine. See below.

Chris Wondolowski (On, 73′) — 5 — Missed his only chance on a dynamite feed from Zusi in stoppage time.

Three things we learned from USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: The USA soccer team poses for a group photo before taking on Bolivia in the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For the most part, the U.S. national team systematically dismantled Bolivia, to the tune of a 4-0 victory (as it should have done), in its final pre-2016 Copa America Centenario tune-up Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park. We learned a few things about Jurgen Klinsmann’s side ahead of Friday’s tournament opener…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Klinsmann settles on the right midfield … finally

Michael Bradley is the USMNT’s no. 6. End of story. His ability to play himself (and teammates) out of trouble at all times and hit (quick) long balls out to the wings changes the point of attack in an instant. The USMNT actually resembles a dangerous attacking side in these brief moments. (He’s also the quickest thinker in the player pool, doing things like this to set up goals.) Not to mention, he’s got the wheels to recover tons of space when a quick counter is inevitably launched the other way — something that Kyle Beckerman, for everything he’s been to the USMNT the last few years, simply doesn’t have anymore.

Alejandro Bedoya was easily the standout performer Saturday night, though, bagging a pair of first-half assists as the USMNT took a 2-0 lead into halftime. Speaking of circulating the ball quickly, Bedoya’s first-time chipped helper was the only ball that puts Gyasi Zardes into space with enough time to compose himself and beat the goalkeeper the way he did for the opener. With Bradley and Jermaine Jones capably waging the possession battle a bit deeper, Bedoya has the license — and ability — to flair out wide when a pocket of space presents itself (reference: USMNT goals scored in above links).

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]


At their best playing with width

Matt Besler and Michael Orozco, who are center backs by nature, started the game at left and right back respectively. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world defensively, but tasked with overlapping a pair of narrow-sitting wide players ahead of them, Zardes and Bobby Wood, much was left to be desired.

Klinsmann brought Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin, full back-winger hybrids by nature, on at halftime, and things opened up all over the field. Bolivia’s full backs had to stay wide, given their speed and (actual) ability to pick out a cross. Remember those long diagonals from Bradley that we talked about above? It was open season for “The General,” who played the decisive ball over the top to free Wood down the left, at which point his cross for Zardes was the final piece for a 3-0 lead.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]


USMNT (finally) has impact subs … if they’re not going to start

Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic are the future — feel free to debate amongst yourselves whether or not they should instead be the present; I won’t stop you — but for now, they’re the impact substitutes the USMNT has been missing for so long. The dynamic duo came on after 63 minutes on Saturday, and immediately they looked to link up and run at opposition defenders every time they got on the ball.

Whether on the halfway line or the edge of the opposition penalty area, it’s quick one and two-touch passing and moving from these two, as was the case in the 69th minute, when Nagbe turned one defender inside the box before sliding a simple square ball to Pulisic. The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund prodigy made no mistake on the finish and bagged his first senior international goal.

At this point, perhaps they’re best suited for 30 minutes of running at tired defenders with heavy legs. At some point, though — in the not-so-distant future — they need to be given the opportunity to prove themselves as 90-minute players.

USMNT 4-0 Bolivia: Bedoya one of many stars in final Copa America prep match

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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  • Bedoya sets up two first half goals
  • Zardes gets brace
  • Pulisic becomes youngest U.S. scorer
  • Brooks scores, too.

Don’t look now, but the United States men’s national team is looking pretty darn good ahead of Friday’s Copa America Centenario opener against Colombia.

Gyasi Zardes scored twice, while John Brooks and Christian Pulisic also scored in a comfortable 4-0 win over Bolivia at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City on Saturday night.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

Pulisic became the youngest USMNT goal scorer in history with his second half goal, set up by Darlington Nagbe. Alejandro Bedoya had a hand in two goals as well for Jurgen Klinsmann’s Yanks, who open up Copa America play on Friday against Colombia.

Bolivia is no power, but the Yanks gave them little room to maneuver after 20 minutes of play.

The U.S. started Matt Besler and Michael Orozco at fullback thanks to Edgar Castillo not having arrived yet to replace Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson having played in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Ecuador.

[ MORE: Real Madrid wins Champions League ]

Bolivia had moments early, specifically on a 15th minute set piece that saw New York Cosmos striker Yasmani Duk a split second offside in heading wide of goal.

Zardes put the Yanks ahead in the 26th minute on a cool bit of passing. Geoff Cameron found Clint Dempsey, who clipped the ball over to Alejandro Bedoya. The Nantes midfielder played a pretty ball through to Zardes, who calmly fired past a charging Guillermo Viscarra. 1-0.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Gyasi Zardes #9 of USA celebrates after scoring the first goal against Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

This game was very chippy, with Bolivia doing the little nasty things to go with big, card-worthy fouls. The Yanks kept their composure, though, and made it 2-0 when Bedoya slid to knock the ball outside the six for Brooks to pass home with his left foot.

Bobby Wood made a lightning quick cut while running onto a Clint Dempsey pass, only to see his shot saved Viscarra on the edge of stoppage time.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

The Yanks made a pair of changes at halftime, introducing DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson for Orozco and Besler.

There was a terrific build-up for the Yanks on goal No. 3, as Bradley played a gorgeous diagonal ball into the box for Wood. The Bundesliga striker worked his man and then fed Zardes for a left-footed, close-range goal. 3-0.

It took 67 minutes for Bolivia to really trouble Guzan, but the Aston Villa keeper rose to the challenge when Brooks and Fabian Johnson were a bit lax in returning to the back line.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

USMNT: Guzan; Besler (Johnson, HT), Brooks, Cameron, Orozco (Yedlin, HT); Bradley (Zusi, 73′), Jones, Bedoya (Nagbe, 64′); Wood, Zardes (Pulisic, 64′), Dempsey (Wondolowski, 73′).

Goals: Zardes (26′, 54′), Brooks (37′), Pulisic (69′)