Real Madrid sends Champions League message with 6-1 demolition of Schalke

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Two goals each from Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo highlighted a ferocious night at Schalke for Real Madrid. Posting a 6-1 win  in Gelsenkirchen, Spain’s leaders took commanding lead at halftime of the teams’ two-legged, Round of 16 UEFA Champions League matchup, with only a sublimely volleyed goal late from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar providing a blemish to an otherwise perfect night for Carlo Ancelotti’s emerging juggernaut.

The performance came amid a round of decisive results for the competition’s group-winners, yet on the last day of knockout round’s the first fortnight of games, Real Madrid performance proved its most lopsided. Paris Saint-Germain previously held that distinction with a 4-0 victory last week at Bayer Leverkusen. On Wednesday, however, Bayer’s Bundesliga compatriot did Samy Hyypia’s team one worse, conceding five times over the game’s first 69 minutes to embolden El Real’s status as one of the competition’s favorites.

(MORE: What we learned from Real Madrid’s five-goal, Champions League rout of Schalke)

Benzema’s finish into the left of Ralf Fährmann’s goal in the 13th minute gave the visitors a lead with their first chance of the match, a margin that doubled when Bale danced through the Schalke defense in the 21st minute before finishing inside the right post.

A spectacular goal from Ronaldo seven minutes into the second half quelled any doubt Spain’s leaders would walk away with the match, with Benzema’s second of the night five minutes later helping to extend Real Madrid’s lead.

Bale and Ronaldo completed their braces in the 69th and 89th minutes, with only late consolation from Huntelaar forging the game’s final margin – a five-goal win that essentially books their place in Champions League’s quarterfinals.

Schalke must still endure a second 90 minutes three weeks from now in  Madrid, but if history is any indication, the game is a mere formality. No team has ever overcome a five-goal deficit to advance in Champions League.

(MORE: Chelsea fails to kill off Galatasaray as home side earns a 1-1 draw)

A strong start from Schalke that saw Jefferson Farfán try his luck with crosses from the right was blunted as Real Madrid began monopolizing possession. That control, benign for the first 10 minutes, paid off in the 13th minute when Ronaldo put Benzema behind the defense for an easy finish.

Dribbling in from the right, Bale held off a pursuing Kevin-Prince Boateng to find Ronaldo facing away from goal at the top of the arc. A one-timed back heal intended to meet Bale’s run through the defense instead deflected off Schalke central defender Felipe Santana before settling near the spot. There Benzema beat an oncoming Fährmann into the left of goal, giving the visitors a 1-0 lead.

Seven minutes later, Real Madrid had their insurance. Benzema, harassing Santana along the right flank, created a turnover that he immediately played back to Bale. Moving toward goal, Bale dribbled around a recovering Santana and left back Sead Kolasinac to create an open shot 14 yards out. Finishing off the right post, Bale put Real Madrid up two in the 21st minute.

Ronaldo nearly added to the visitors’ lead in the 32nd minute only to see Fährmann push his low, 18-yard shot off the left post. Minutes later a cross for an open Benzema at the right post found the Frenchman’s outstretched leg incapable of keeping his shot under the crossbar. Two more saves on Ronaldo in the half’s final moments left Real Madrid’s star sniper off the scoresheet at intermission, with Madrid going into halftime up, 2-0.

source: APSeven minutes into the second half, Ronaldo had his revenge, much of which came at Joel Matip’s expense. Isolated on the Schalke center half at the top of the area in the 52nd minute, Ronaldo provided a flashback to basketball star Allen Iverson’s famous match up with Michael Jordan, with three step-overs sending the Cameroonian international to his left as Ronaldo dribbled in the other direction. With a left-footed blast just inside the far post, Ronaldo added another spectacular goal to his highlight reel, giving his team a 3-0 lead.

Five minutes later, Benzema’s finish from the right of the penalty area increased the visitors’ lead to four, with a finish from Bale near the same spot in the 69th minute giving Real Madrid their second brace of the night. When Ronaldo added his second in the 89th minute, all three of los Blancos starting forwards had scored multiple goals, with only a perfectly executed volley by Huntelaar from 18 yards out in stoppage time giving Schalke a modicum of consolation.

Outshot 23-10, with their guests posting a 11-4 edge in shots on target, the Miners home leg proved a premature end to their hopes of advancing to the competition’s final eight. Undefeated in seven entering the match, Jens Keller’s team had harbored aspirations of preventing Real Madrid from running their unbeaten streak to 27, but after falling behind six goals by the end of regulation time, Schalke’s performance served as the latest example of the growing divide between Champions League’s contenders and filler.

Along the way, Real Madrid made its strongest argument yet that it deserves to be mentioned among the favorites in this competition. While that’s a stature most grant to Bayern Munich (and Bayern, alone), Carlo Ancelotti’s team has emerged as the most likely team to unseat last year’s champions. Undefeated since October, the Merengues continue to improve, making thoughts of a much-coveted decima (10th European title) more realistic as the competition goes on.

While the Round of 16’s reverse legs may yet change that picture, for now, Real Madrid has earned its place behind the holders as favorites in Champions League, their 6-1 victory the most impressive of the fortnight’s results.

Extremely early, Gold Cup glee-driven thoughts on a USMNT World Cup roster

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The United States men’s national team won its sixth Gold Cup title on Wednesday, topping Jamaica 2-1 on a late winner from Jordan Morris.

It’s the sort of goal that moves a 22-year-old forward’s name from pencil to pen on a World Cup roster, one the Yanks will hopefully be planning following qualifying under Bruce Arena.

Morris is one of several players who took hold of their chances to march into Russia via fine performances as part of the USMNT’s “B Team” in the Gold Cup, along with Darlington Nagbe, Matt Besler, and maybe Paul Arriola (This assumes you hadn’t already counted Omar Gonzalez).

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

It seems to us there are six spots in play right now. The forward batch of four is set and Ethan Horvath will probably join Tim Howard and Brad Guzan in the goalkeeper corps.

Five defenders look set and the same amount of midfielders (Besler, Brooks, Cameron, Gonzalez, Yedlin, Bedoya, Bradley, Johnson, Nagbe, Pulisic), leaving three defender and three midfielder spots. It looks set to come down to Kenny Saief or Kelyn Rowe in the midfield, and Tim Ream or Graham Zusi at the back.

So what’s the United States’ 23-man roster look like for Russia right now? Here’s our best guess (and we’re thinking as Arena, not us):

Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath

Defenders (8): Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Jorge Villafana, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi.

Midfielders (8): Kellyn Acosta, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Kelyn Rowe.

Forwards (4):  Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood.

Bonus seven-man waiting list: Joe Corona, Dom Dwyer, Dax McCarty, Tim Ream, Kenny Saief, Danny Williams, Gyasi Zardes.

Morris’ 88th minute missile gives USMNT Gold Cup

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Jordan Morris missed a chance to put the U.S. ahead with three minutes to play, then belted the Americans to a title with moments to spare in regulation, giving the USMNT its sixth Gold Cup title with a 2-1 win over Jamaica at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Wednesday.

Altidore also scored his 39th career goal and is now 16 goals behind joint-USMNT all-time leaders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Je-Vaughn Watson equalized for Jamaica within five second half minutes.

[ MORE: Three things | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s the winner:

The early stages were more about fouls than chances, as Jamaica took several chances to plow into the favored U.S.

Je-Vaughn Watson could’ve seen red for a cleating of Jordan Morris, and Jorge Villafana was felled by a vicious bit of work from Romario Williams.

The first threat on goal came from Jozy Altidore and friends, as the Toronto FC man tore into a 25-yard shot that Andre Blake saved before being injured denying Kellyn Acosta’s rebound chance.

Blake was taken from the game with an ugly-looking hand injury, and Dwayne Miller took his place between the sticks.

Though the U.S. controlled the game, there were dicey moments, to be sure, as Graham Zusi was cooked by Darren Mattocks and the U.S. conceded a corner kick it was able to send clear of danger.

Continued U.S. pressure led to a dangerous free kick, dead center, 30 yards from goal. Enter Altidore.

The lead didn’t last long, as Watson cooked Jordan Morris at the back post to lash a free kick past Tim Howard. It was poor marking from the youngster, and the final was tied at 1.

Miller made a stop on an Arriola in the 63rd minute, as the U.S. looked to rally after inserting Clint Dempsey for Kellyn Acosta.

Omar Gonzalez headed a Michael Bradley corner off the netting outside of the near post in the 71st minute, as the Yanks and Reggae Boyz edged toward extra time.

Miller then flipped a Morris rip over the bar for a U.S. corner that turned into a Jamaican counter when Gonzalez was sucked into the Reggae Boyz’ 18.

Dempsey then headed a cross that Miller pushed off the post in the 75th minute in a moment that would’ve been doubly historic.

The Seattle man then mishit a free kick that nearly gave Jordan Morris the match-winner, but the fellow Sounders attacker somehow opted against passing it on goal with his left-foot and flubbed the chance.

Given a chance with his right foot, though, it was all good. A Zardes cross was partially cleared to the penalty spot, and Morris made no doubt with a blast past Miller. 2-1, 90.

USMNT player ratings from the Gold Cup Final win

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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

How did the individual champs fare? Read on…

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 6 — He’s not going to do much better on the goal, short of Landon Donovan’s suggestion to keep a man on the back post. The Yanks’ clear No. 1.

Jorge Villafana — 5 — A rough night, but all-in-all may be Arena’s best option provided Fabian Johnson doesn’t move back to LB for ‘Gladbach season.

Omar Gonzalez — 7 — See below.

Matt Besler — 7 — Didn’t have to do too much, but etched his name as the third or fourth CB for Russia 2018.

Graham Zusi — 6 — Maybe his best game of his oft-maligned tournament, even if the game is much different with Darren Mattocks doing something better after cooking Zusi early on the flank. He’s a midfielder for me, maybe a RWB in a 3-5-2.

Michael Bradley — 7 — He was given the Golden Ball in one of those rare moments that prove voters watch players who aren’t goal scorers, and he deserved it. Bradley seems to have come out of his NT dark period, and was mostly very good in the tournament.

Kellyn Acosta (Off 55′) — 5 — Passing was off, and seemed a little too eager to jump passes and betray his position.

Paul Arriola (Off 76′) — 6 — Ran his shorts off, but still missing the right bit of service needed from a man out wide. Improved World Cup stock, but had a chance to do even more.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 90+1′) — 8 — Every time I blow off a player due to early struggles to adapt to the NT set-up, remind me how wonderful Nagbe looked in this tournament.

Jordan Morris — 7 — There’s something to be said for any player coming back from a missed opportunity and a lost mark on the Jamaica equalizer. His match winner coming moments after he bungled a chance to pass home with his left foot says a lot for the future of Standord’s industrious striker.

Jozy Altidore — 8 — He’s a CONCACAF killer, and somehow when he drops deep into the midfield we’re okay with it. Yes, Andre Blake stops his free kick. But Andre Blake wasn’t there, was he?

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Subs

Clint Dempsey (On 55′) — 7 — Clint Dempsey = super sub. It makes us super happy to say/read, and we’re hoping he’s a rich man’s Carlos Ruiz.

Gyasi Zardes (On 76′) — 5 — I championed his inclusion into the NT for a while, but how he has a place other than a status as a longtime Arena player is baffling. His cross which led to the winner didn’t look to be anything more than a Hail Mary.

Dax McCarty (On 90+1′) — N/A

Three things from the USMNT’s sixth Gold Cup

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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Match recap | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s what we learned from a fun win over the Reggae Boyz.

A moment for U.S. Soccer history

It doesn’t matter whether the Americans were heavy favorites or underdogs (they were heavy favorites), a title-winning match is going to make memories for an entire program.

That it was Stanford product Jordan Morris who scored the match winner in the 88th minute only makes it better.

Morris is a symbol of the many paths Americans can take to the national team, and his industrious efforts and “100 mph at all-times” motor received a deserved exclamation point.

“It’s unbelievable. Every time I step on this field it’s an honor to represent this country. This game was amazing. Jamaica made it really tough and I was nervous cause it was my guy who scored on the goal so I was trying to make up for it any way I could.”

It wasn’t Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore who etched their names in U.S. Soccer history, and that’s a good note for this side as it builds toward, hopefully, the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That picture above says a lot.

Bruce gets it right (mostly)

While being careful not to give the legendary U.S. boss too much credit for choosing 10 of his best 11 and trotting out the same lineup from a solid win over Costa Rica, Arena had five games to find a team that would win a final on home soil and he successfully pulled that off.

He was right to know he could navigate the group stage with an experimental bunch, even if those games showed that the American depth isn’t near what many of us hoped it might be at this point in the program’s development.

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

What it means for a World Cup or even the rest of CONCACAF qualifying is another thing, but the quality of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Howard is too much for all of CONCACAF but Mexico (and Costa Rica on its best day).

Lauding Arena for plugging Dempsey into the match as his first sub is like lauding a pizzeria owner for ordering mozzarella for his pies, so let’s move to sub No. 2. It was a risk to plug ice-cold Gyasi Zardes into the match, and the LA Galaxy man did not look good for most of the match. But his cross on the winner got the job done, and you can’t take that away from the team.

The future feels bright

Michael Bradley was given the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament, and the fact that the Yanks clearly arrived in the tournament with their captain’s return to the fold following the group stage is no coincidence.

Yet it is a pleasant and mild surprise. Bradley had not starred for the U.S. for some time, though he is clearly their best option in the middle of the park. For him to arrive and put in a calm, collected, and dominant batch of shifts is a good sign heading into some tough World Cup qualifiers.

Tim Howard proved again that there was never any need to consider anyone else as a No. 1 — even though Brad Guzan had some great moments in the group stage — while Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey both shined in spots.

Considering that Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, and Bobby Wood were (probably) just hanging out in Europe during the tournament shows that the Americans can feel good about life. That’s a marked change from life under Jurgen Klinsmann, and U.S. Soccer has been proven right time and again by that move. The jury’s still out on Arena, but that same jury has good vibes right now.