Two goals make Wondolowski’s case in U.S.’s 2-0 win over South Korea

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CARSON, Calif. — Among those on the fringe of the United States Men’s National Team picture, nobody’s candidacy has been more debate than Chris Wondolowski’s. On Saturday, Major League Soccer’s single-season scoring champion and former Most Valuable Player made another plea to be included in June’s trip to World Cup 2014, scoring both goals in the U.S.’s 2-0 win over South Korea at StubHub Center.

The victory marked a successful end to the U.S.’s winter training camp – one of two times Jurgen Klinsmann’s team will assemble before preparations begin for this summer’s tournament. With only a brief international break in March allowing players to make a final impression before camp is called in May, players like Michael Parkhurst and Brad Davis were making final pitches to make the U.S.’s 23-man World Cup squad.

Nobody did more to help their candidacy than Wondolowski. In the fourth minute, the San Jose Earthquakes captain headed home from close range to give his team an early lead. In the 43rd minute, his work in the right side of the penalty area produced a near-goal for Landon Donovan, while his finish of a Graham Zusi pass into the area in the 60th minute gave him his third multi-goal game of his international career.

(MORE: What went right Saturday for the United States)

For Korea, the loss finished a one-week, three-match trip through North America that saw them face three World Cup qualifiers. After defeating Costa Rica 1-0 in Los Angeles last Saturday, however, Hong Myung-Bo’s team closed their tour with multi-goal losses to Mexico (4-0 on Wednesday in San Antonio) and the U.S.

The opening kickoff saw the United States take a page from their 2013 Gold Cup playbook, where Landon Donovan was name the tournament’s best player while spending much of the competition playing along the defense, above partner Chris Wondolowski. Six months after helping the U.S. blow through that competition’s group stage, the same setup produced an early goal against South Korea.

In the fourth minute, Donovan played wide from just outside the South Korea penalty area, finding Graham Zusi open five yards from touch. The right midfielder’s quick cross far post for Brad Davis forced Jung Sung-Ryong into a reflect stop on diving shot, though the resulting ball allowed Wondolowski to run through a header for the game’s opening goal.

(MORE: What went wrong Saturdays for the United States)

The rest of the half produced more mixed results. In the eighth minute, Lee Ho’s flick from a near-post corner seemed nearly beat Nick Rimando at the near post only to the U.S. keeper extend his arms from inside his own goal to prevent the equalizer. Over the next 20 minutes, South Korea’s willingness to sit deep until the U.S. approached the center line forced the Americans to seize the initiative. Repeated trying to work down their left flank, the U.S. failed to take advantage of Korea’s passive play.

By the 30-minute mark, it was Korea generating opportunities, albeit thin ones. A 31st minute free kick forced a clearance from Omar Gonzalez. A Kim Min-Woo cross from the byline in the 35th minute from saw Matt Besler slide keep the ball from crossing the goal mouth. Another free kick led to an open chance for Kim Ju-Young in the 42nd, but the defender whiffed on his shot. Though Wondolowski and Donovan nearly doubled the U.S.’s lead in the 43rd, Korea had the better of play over the half’s final quarter-hour.

A more even opening to the second half gave way to Wondolowski’s second at the hour mark, a goal created after Zusi got behind the Korean defense on a throw in. Brad Evans’ toss toward the right of the penalty saw Zusi let go of a cross moments before being closed down, with Wondolowski beating the Korean defense to beat Jung at the near post.

The brace ran Wondolowski’s international goals mark to eight, all of which have come since July 2013. After going scoreless in his first nine international appearances, Wondolowski has quickly shed a reputation for being unable to find goal at international level. Having built on the totals he amassed at last summer’s Gold Cup, questions now shift to whether the 2012 MLS MVP can score against high-level international competition. With two goals against a World Cup qualifier, “Wondo” made his best argument yet.

Over the match’s final half hour, neither Rimando nor Jung were meaningfully tested, with a late cross into the U.S.’s six-yard box the closest either team came to changing the 2-0 score. Instead, the biggest news of the match’s final moments was the debut of two U.S. hopes for the future. In the 75th minute, Seattle DeAndre Yedlin collected his first cap, replacing teammate Brad Evans. He was accompanied onto the field by Luis Gil, also making his first senior level appearance for the United States.

Lineups

United States: Nick Rimando; Brad Evans (DeAndre Yedlin 75′), Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler (Clarence Goodson 62′), Michael Parkhurst; Kyle Beckerman Mix Diskerud (Benny Feilhaber 62′); Graham Zusi, Landon Donovan, Brad Davis (Luis Gil 75′); Chris Wondolowski (Eddie Johnson 62′)

Goals: Wondolowski (4′, 60′)

South Korea: Jung Syung-Ryong; Kim Jin-Su (Tae-Hwan Kim 78′), Kim Yo-Young, Kim Kee-Hee, Lee Ho (Lee Seung-Ki 69′); Park Jong-Woo, Kim Min-Woo, Ko Yo-Han; Lee Keun-Ho (Seung-Ki Lee 69′), Kim Shin-Wook

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).