Liverpool’s title charge, Chelsea’s staying power, drop zone dread – View from the Booth, with Arlo White

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When watching soccer on TV, have you ever sat there and wondered what the man behind the microphone really thinks?

Maybe this will go someway to helping with that.

In the latest edition of “View from the Booth” we chat with NBC Sports’ lead soccer announcer Arlo White why games at the top have been so tight, Steven Gerrard’s resurgence, the trophy chase for the big three and much, much more. Remember, Arlo and his broadcast team are on a short break this week, as FA Cup action takes center stage.

(VIEW FROM THE BOOTH ARCHIVE)

You can hear Arlo calling live games every weekend on NBC Sports Network and NBC, and watch every single game available live online via NBC Sports Live Extra,

So, let’s get to it.

With so many of the games between the top teams this season proving tight, tense and yielding plenty of 0-0’s, why is it happening so much?

It’s a really good question. I’ve been at Manchester United v Chelsea, Arsenal v Chelsea and Arsenal v Manchester United this season, and the whole experience has followed a familiar pattern of great anticipation, early missed chances but ultimate inertia and stalemate. I think each game had it’s own significance and reasons for the result. In August, Jose Mourinho played without a recognized striker at Old Trafford before it had become apparent that United were not the force of old, and were there for the taking. In December at the Emirates, Mourinho reverted to a more cautious style having conceded far too many goals in Chelsea’s previous games. On Wednesday, Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere had terrific chances in the opening 3 minutes, but failed to take them, and aside from a couple of superb saves by Szczesny and De Gea later on, the rest of the game lacked any real inspiration as each side prioritized ‘not losing’ above going out and winning.

source: AP
Arlo believes the top teams have all been to afraid to go for broke this season. As a fear of losing has prevailed.

Should we be surprised? It was Arsenal’s 11th clean sheet in their last 12 home games in all competitions, but with the incentive of re-taking top spot, I was surprised with the lack of energy and urgency in the Gunners approach. With that in mind, Arsene Wenger only made one substitution in the entire game. Could Lucas Podolski have made a difference late on? Could Wenger and Arsenal have tested a potentially rusty Rio Ferdinand more? Could Arsenal have stepped up and made more of a statement of intent in this title race? I think they could and it’s a worry for Arsenal fans that they didn’t.

But dull 0-0’s haven’t dominated this season in the Premier League. We’ve seen plenty of exciting goal fests involving Manchester City and Liverpool, so there has been a balance.

One team not scared to attack is Liverpool. Can the Reds sustain their title challenge in the final few months of the season?

Who doesn’t love a cute little Chihuahua? What a brilliant and Mourinho-esque piece of imagery from Brendan Rodgers, that his little Chihuahua can “run between the legs of the horses.” And why not? Liverpool have been in devastating attacking form lately. Are they overly reliant on Luiz Suarez? He’s only scored 4 of Liverpool’s last 24 goals in the Premier League. Daniel Sturridge is on fire.  Coutinho is influencing games. Jordan Henderson is a machine in central midfield. Raheem Sterling is enjoying a break through season, and Steven Gerrard is settling into his new, deeper role brilliantly.

Liverpool can sustain a title challenge. Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City all have to visit Anfield. On paper, their ‘toughest’ away game is at Old Trafford and that has hardly been a fortress this season. Most significantly, and unlike their title rivals, they are unencumbered by midweek European Football, and Rodgers has more training sessions to implement his tactics.

My concern would be the Liverpool defense. Could Daniel Agger come in for Kolo Toure, who has struggled of late? Can a team that has Aly Cissokho as it’s left back win a Premier League title? Will Liverpool score so many goals that it won’t matter? We shall see. The Reds are mounting a compelling and thrilling challenge this season.

At the moment, Steven Gerrard seems to be the focal point of Liverpool’s charge. How has his resurgence helped the Reds?

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Steven Gerrard has been in imperious form from a deep-lying position this season.

Brendan Rodgers has pulled another master stroke here. He knows that Steven Gerrard is a major player at Liverpool but is also aware that Gerrard’s ability to scamper up and down a Football pitch is waning. The answer isn’t to ship Gerrard out of the club, but to embrace the new reality and find a role in which he can thrive. As Rodgers told me earlier this season, he is open to adapting his tactical approach to the talent that he has available, and this is a great example of that.

I was at Anfield for the Aston Villa game when Gerrard, and Liverpool, struggled with the new role in a 2-2 draw, but since then he seems to have taken to it beautifully. His pass for Daniel Sturridge’s equalizer at Fulham was just sublime, and he then kept his nerve to slot home an injury time penalty for the winner.

Gerrard has been a wonderful servant for Liverpool for many years. You could see in his celebration at Craven Cottage that he feels this is his best chance of winning a Premier League title with his beloved Reds. And like Rodgers says, beyond this season, Gerrard could play the “single pivot” role for England at the World Cup.

With the latter stages of the FA Cup and Champions League upon us, which title contender do you expect to cope with the rigors better, Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea?

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Chelsea, in Arlo’s opinion, are best equipped to make a run at the PL crown, FA Cup and Champions League.

At the moment, I don’t think Arsenal are coping with the rigors of the Premier League, let alone the Champions League and FA Cup. But getting Flamini and Ramsey back into their midfield from suspension and injury could be huge for the Gunners. I worry about the energy levels of Ozil and Giroud, and their work load is about to increase significantly.

For all of Manchester City’s amazing attacking talent, they have sorely missed Fernandinho in central midfield. His absence isn’t the only reason that City have failed to score in consecutive Premier League games, but when you look at the numbers, it is startling. He has missed 5 League starts, and Manchester City have failed to score in 4 of them. Therefore, 64 of City’s 68 Premier League goals have come in his 20 starts.

Of course, the absences of Aguero and Nasri are also key, but Fernandinho’s energy in the center of the park enables City to attack with more confidence. If their attack breaks down, Fernandinho will help them retrieve the ball and start again. They need him back. So, I think Chelsea are best equipped to cope. They have been rock solid defensively and have multiple and interchangeable options ahead of the back four to get results in big games. Matic has settled into the base of midfield nicely. Luiz can do a great job there. Hazard has been incredible of late, and Willian has been a revelation in terms of quality and work rate.

Chelsea might be title favorites now, but they also have the best chance of the three of prolonging their participation in the Champions League. They should dispose of Galatasaray, whilst Arsenal and City must overcome Bayern and Barcelona. Chelsea might have the heavier schedule in the closing weeks of the season.

Finally, with the standings so tight at the bottom, which teams do you think will survive and why?

source: AP
The arrival of Tony Pulis has ‘been a revelation’ for Crystal Palace, as they surge away from the drop zone.

Very tough question. This season is so unpredictable. Only Southampton and Newcastle are truly mid-table. Swansea are in 10th place, but only 8 points clear of the bottom side Fulham.

I said that Fulham had a terrific transfer deadline day, and I stick by that. They got rid of the ‘luxury’ players Berbatov and Taaraabt (addition by subtraction), and brought in some solid workers like Holtby, for a tough relegation scrap. Mitroglou is their wild card.  If he can score some big goals, then Fulham can turn their new found energy into points. But it’s a very tall order. They played Manchester United and Liverpool recently and despite their defensive approach, they were only outscored 5-4. But they only got 1 point for their efforts. Over the next 4 games, they face crucial games against West Brom, Cardiff and Newcastle. The results of those games could decide their fate.

Crystal Palace have been an absolute revelation under Tony Pulis. I think their story has been somewhat overlooked amidst the close title race above them. Right now, I would say Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich for the drop. But ask me after the next round of games, and it could be three different teams.

That’s the beauty of this terrific Premier League season.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —