Stacked and packed days for a busy United States national team in Brazil

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Jurgen Klinsmann and his U.S. national team keep squeezing and squeezing, attempting to extract as much as possible from this ongoing Brazilian leg of the annual January camp, holding workouts and training matches in South America for a few more days before returning stateside.

This Sao Paulo-based stretch of the U.S. team’s annual January camp is about two things: getting in the effective workouts, same as they would back in California during any other January camp, and; doing as much to acclimate and familiarize themselves with Brazil, removing some mystery and looking for potential snags at the site of this summer’s World Cup.

No other team has this opportunity, after all, to bring about half the men that will make up this year’s World Cup roster – a full complement of 26 American players are in Brazil, but only about a dozen will make the final 23-man list for this summer in Brazil – to train and stay where they will train and stay this summer.

It’s about removing any hardship borne of the known unknown and the  unknown unknowns for players, coaches and staff. And it is about building relationships with support staff and potential allies at hotels, training grounds, the U.S. Embassy, etc.

How much this familiarization efforts will really help can be debated; at some point, soccer matters are decided by 11 v. 11 on the field. Then again, it can’t hurt, right? It’s a World Cup, after all, and dotting “Is” and crossing “Ts” certainly seems like the prudent and thorough approach.

So the busy days continue. To help keep fans informed, U.S. Soccer has been sending back diaries, like this one on the first “double-day” session from Brazil.

The team has had one closed door training game, a 2-1 loss to national power Sao Paulo.  Details are sketchy, although some intrepid journalists did manage to stow away with the details you see in that piece (linked just above.)

Journalists weren’t as lucky the following day, when U.S. security staff nailed them trying to film some of the workout. Apparently the team’s security staff is slowly plugging the leaks, getting acclimated to the weak spots, too.

The U.S. players visited the Estadio Das Dunas in Natal (pictured above), site of the team’s group opener against Ghana. (Remember, getting out of this tough World Cup group is all about winning that first one over Ghana.) I spoke to U.S. national team communications director Michael Kammarman in Brazil this afternoon; he reported that players and staff thought the building looks fantastic.

Meanwhile, Klinsmann and some other staff members did more complete site inspections today at Natal and at the stadium in Recife.

Assistant coaches Martin Vasquez and Andreas Herzog ran the U.S. workouts on the field while the big boss was site inspecting. Masa Sakihana, the team’s fitness coach, had the players for a gym session later in the day.

See what I mean … the days are stacked and packed.

The team has yet another training game Monday. Details will be scarce once again. Why?

U.S. Soccer typically resists providing details on these closed-door matches because they are so informal that only incorrect or wholly imprecise conclusions can be drawn. That’s the theory, at least.

In last Thursday’s training match – which we might call a “scrimmage” in our parts … but since  the world wouldn’t know anything about that American football term, we’ll call it what the rest of the globe calls it – 24 out of 26 U.S. players got on the field. The outside backs played 30 minutes each, in no particular order, so there’s not much to infer from that.

It’s more “glorified practice” than “match.” At least, that’s what I’ve been told before by U.S. staff.

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.