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Ukraine vs. United States: Looking back on our five focal points

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Wednesday’s match in Cyprus was all about the U.S. Men’s National Team’s depth chart: who was staking a claim to a starting spot; who was putting themselves in contention for the 23-man team; and who was trying to earn a place on May’s 30-man preliminary roster. In an ideal situation, Jurgen Klinsmann would have seen players hungry to improve their stock make life difficult for the Major League Soccer players who couldn’t make the trip. The depth chart would have been complicated.

The 2-0 loss to Ukraine did anything but. A flat performance defined by defensive mistakes, midfield ineffectiveness, and a lack of chances gave the U.S. nothing positive to take into new month’s friendly against Mexico. With most of today’s squad unlikely to feature in that out-of-window friendly, players like Sacha Kljestan will be left watching their competition try to make the impact Wednesday’s team could not.

(MORE: Ukraine 2-0 USA: Disjointed U.S. display sees fired up Ukraine prevail)

Last night, we identified five areas of focus for the U.S. national team. Here’s how they played out:

1. Geoff Cameron‘s chance to lay claim to the right back spot

How Cameron did depends on who you ask. Joe Prince-Wright felt he vaulted himself to the top of the right back depth chart, though as Cameron stood staring at a Ukraine attacker that had drifted into his channel ahead of a first half cross, you couldn’t help but wonder if the Stoke City starter had tuned out. Would Brad Evans had made the same mistake?

After taking two steps toward the middle of the field, Cameron allowed his Ukrainian mark to settle in the space between himself and Oguchi Onyewu (turned toward the left flank). Moments later, after a successful cross for Cameron’s man helped beat the U.S. defense, an offside call saved the Americans from conceding a second goal. On a ball Cameron should have positioned himself to attack, the U.S. nearly conceded a goal.

That was one of Cameron’s bad points. A more apropos moment came earlier when Cameron was isolated against Yevhen Konoplyanka. The Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk winger, through multiple moves, initially had trouble shaking the U.S. right back. Eventually, however, Konoplaynka was able to create room toward the line to float a left-footed cross near post.

Compared to the rest of the defense, Cameron’s day was fine, but that’s comparing a bent fender to a caved in engine compartment. Still not providing much of wide as the U.S. builds through the middle, Cameron didn’t help his stock on Wednesday. Unlike the rest of the defense, though, he didn’t hurt it, either.

(MORE: Three things we learned in USA’s defeat to Ukraine)

source: Getty Images2. Is Jermaine Jones carrying any rust?

Jones’ performance in front of the defense was consistent with somebody who has played one club game in two months. In the first half, as the deepest man in midfield, he often failed to provide a third passing option for his center backs, who were often left to play back to Tim Howard. Jones compounded that problem with an inability to serve as an outlet when the ball reached the attackers. Though he improved as the game went on, Jones’s overall performance was languid, one that looked especially ineffective in the absence of Michael Bradley.

3. Will “U.S. Jozy Altidore” transcend “Sunderland Jozy Altidore”?

Jozy Altidore was one of the few players who looked decent from the opening kickoff, but with the U.S. unable to build many decent opportunities, Altidore was given few chances to play beyond ‘decent’. Some nice work holding up play led to a few forays forward before intermission, but ultimately, Altidore was unable to pose a meaningful threat on Andriy Pyatov’s goal.

Given the U.S.’s problems all over the field, there’s a risk of being too harsh on Altidore, yet the kind of descriptions you read above could apply to almost any of Altidore’s performances at Sunderland. At some point, hard work is not enough for a forward, and while one game with the U.S. isn’t enough to pass judgment on his suitability for Brazil, this game’s fit in a bigger, unproductive pattern is one of the most worrying parts of the current national team.

4. Wanted: Clint Dempsey of 2012.

Speaking of fitting into patterns, Wednesday’s Dempsey looked eerily similar to the man who struggled to get anything going at the end of the 2012 season for Seattle. In the first half, with the U.S. midfield broken, Dempsey was forced to drop deeper and deeper to get the ball, taking him out of position to do what he does best – pick up opportunistic goals.

This will be the key to Seattle’s season, but it may also define whether the U.S. can threaten to get out of their World Cup group: When will Dempsey’s teams stop trying to make him into something he’s not. With good technical skill, it’s tempting, even logical, to say ‘We need to get Clint on the ball more.’ After two years of seeing teams do this, it’s time to admit: Dempsey is not that type of guy.

Find another plan. Tweak the system. Bring in other players, or just go back to the drawing board. As Sounders fans now know, if you’re starting Dempsey underneath a striker and counting on him to be a focal point in a  possession game, you’re going to see a lot of performances like today’s. Perhaps this was a worst case scenario, but it was still another example of Dempsey’s versatility being used against him.

As has been the case since he left Fulham (in 2012), Dempsey wasn’t put in a position to succeed. As a result, his day in Cyprus was an ineffectual one.

source: Getty Images5. Midfield spots up for grabs

Jones’s partner on Wednesday, Sacha Kljestan, didn’t help his case. If anything, he highlighted the contrast between him and Mix Diskerud.

When, in the first half, the U.S. was trying to hard to build through the middle, he was often nowhere to be seen. For every time he came back to help Jones, OguchiOnyewu, and John Brooks get the ball out of defense, there was another time where he was in no position to offer the outlet the team needs in the middle of the park. He’d give and go and never be heard from again, a performance that forced Dempsey to keep dropping in midfield.

Brek Shea, in the 27 minutes he saw, showed he can provide the change-of-pace option your can afford to gamble on with the World Cup’s huge 23-man rosters. His brief flashes on Wednesday may keep him in the picture, with similar displays from Danny Williams in the middle perhaps earning the Reading man some momentum going into May.

As for Alejandro Bedoya, the man who started on the right, he was as victimized by the U.S.’s play as Dempsey or Altidore. Too often the answer to “why isn’t Bedoya doing more” was “because the ball’s nowhere near him.” But just like the U.S.’s forwards, Bedoya probably didn’t lose any ground. A heavy favorite to make the World Cup squad before the match, Bedoya may have been helped by others’ struggles. He didn’t seize his opportunity, but he didn’t waste it, either.

CCL Preview: MLS teams enter quarterfinal stage

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of New York Red Bulls celebrates a goal against the D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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CONCACAF Champions League action is back.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live ]

Three teams from Major League Soccer remain in the tournament as an all-MLS tie takes place at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday between the Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls.

The first leg of their quarterfinal will provide an intriguing peek as to the offseason work both Carl Robinson and Jesse Marsch have done to crank their teams up a few notches, as both clubs will rely on plenty of young talent once again this season. Marsch has handed the captains armband to U.S. national team midfielder Sacha Kljestan after Dax McCarty’s departure in the offseason, while the Whitecaps have never lost at RBA in three previous visits.

Former Seattle Sounders star Fredy Montero won’t make his debut for the ‘Caps as he continues to work on his fitness but he could play on Mar. 2 in the return game at BC Place, while this tie at least confirms that one MLS team will be in the semifinals of North America’s top club competition.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Reigning MLS Supporters’ Shield champs FC Dallas also kick off the first leg of their CCL quarterfinal against Arabe Unido from Panama on Wednesday as the Texas outfit host the opener before heading down to Central America next week for the second leg. New DP signing Cristian Colman has impressed and given the absence of the injured Mauro Diaz, Oscar Pareja will look at him to make Dallas’ offense tick against a Panamanian outfit who went a perfect 4-0-0 in the CCL group stage.

In the two other CCL quarterfinals not involving MLS clubs, Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa drew 0-0 at home against Liga MX side Pachuca on Tuesday in the first leg of their quarterfinal. El Tri star Hirving Lozano was kept quiet by Saprissa but Pachuca will fancy their chances of advancing with a home game to come in the second leg. On Wednesday two Liga MX teams do battle as Tigres host Pumas in Monterrey as the runners up from last season look to make another charge to the final.

Below is the full schedule for the CCL quarterfinals, while you can stream the games on Facebook Live here.


CCL quarterfinal 1st legs

Deportivo Saprissa 0-0 Pachuca – Played on Tuesday, Feb. 21
New York Red Bulls vs. Vancouver – Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET
Tigres UANL vs. Pumas – Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Arabe Unido – Thursday, 8 p.m. ET

CCL quarterfinal 2nd legs

Pachuca vs. Deportivo Saprissa – Tuesday, Feb. 28 – 10 p.m. ET
Arabe Unido vs. FC Dallas – Wednesday, Mar. 1 – 8 p.m. ET
Pumas vs. Tigres UANL – Wednesday, Mar. 1 – 10 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. New York Red Bulls – Thursday, Mar. 2 – 10 p.m. ET

China, MLS: What’s the best option for Wayne Rooney?

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Reports continue to link Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney with a move away from Old Trafford in the coming weeks.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live ]

Jose Mourinho’s comments on Tuesday about not ruling out a potential move to China for United’s all-time leading goalscorer hardly quelled those rumors.

With Rooney’s options wide-ranging, plenty of reports state he is heading to China, while others say he wants to remain at United. Other reports state he fancies a move to another Premier League team and further rumors suggest he could be on his way to Major League Soccer.

The bloke has options. Lots of ’em.

Rooney, 31, has 18 months left on his current contract at United and the transfer deadline for the 2017 Chinese Super League season is next Tuesday. That means if any reported deal to China happens — Rooney could become the highest paid player in history with wages of $43.5 million a season, per reports — it has to happen fast. However if a CSL team moves on one of their four allotted foreign players outside the window they are allowed to replace him.

The two favorites to sign Rooney in the CSL are Guangzhou Evergrande and Beijing Sinobo Guoan (the two most valuable clubs in China), with the former winning the CSL title six seasons on the spin and already having the likes of Jackson Martinez and Paulinho in their ranks and Luiz Felipe Scolari as their manager.

That said, the Daily Mail claims he has interest from Major League Soccer, plus Everton are reportedly interested in re-signing the boyhood Evertonian 13 years after they sold him to United. However, Rooney’s wage demands could be a stumbling block for the Toffees.

Is MLS a better option for Rooney than China? Financially, probably not.

[ MORE: Rooney returns to training after injury ]

We’ve seen MLS’ model changing in recent season with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba all moving on this summer and clubs hankering to entice the next Sebastian Giovinco over from Europe instead. MLS’ shift towards attracting younger DPs from Europe by offering huge wages has been hampered by the rise of the Chinese Super League and its mammoth salaries which have enticed the likes of Oscar, Ramires, Hulk, Jackson Martinez and Graziano Pelle from Europe’s top leagues.

MLS will still be a very attractive option for Rooney and his family but with clubs like the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls changing their tact in recent times and opting to nurture Homegrown players over expensive veteran imports, Rooney’s options in MLS have all of a sudden become a lot more limited.

Maybe LAFC would offer him a chance to move to LA when they arrive in MLS in 2018? Orlando City SC has an open DP spot. And then there’s Atlanta United but they already have all three DP spots locked up. Also, New York City FC have one DP spot open but could a Manchester United legend really play for a club so heavily linked to Manchester City? Probs not.

Anyway, whatever Rooney ends up deciding to do in the coming weeks or in the summer he will have plenty of options. China and MLS seem like the best way for him to have one final payday and play regularly. No matter what he has achieved in his glittering career for club and country, Rooney is no longer guaranteed regular minutes at United and that would be the case at any other top six team in the Premier League.

The emergence of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard at United mean he will be a bit-part player now and in the future. He spoke out last month about his frustration regarding that situation and the writing is on the wall for United’s all-time leading goalscorer as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba continue to grab the spotlight at Old Trafford this season.

Rooney is entering the final acts of an imperious, somewhat elongated show at United. It’s obvious his future lies elsewhere, but where?

China plans for 50,000 soccer academies by 2025

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  China's President Xi Jinping addresses an audience of dignitaries including the British Prime Minister David Cameron (not seen) at Manchester airport on October 23, 2015 in Manchester, England. The President of the People's Republic of China, Mr Xi Jinping and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, are paying a State Visit to the United Kingdom as guests of The Queen.  They will stay at Buckingham Palace and undertake engagements in London and Manchester. The last state visit paid by a Chinese President to the UK was Hu Jintao in 2005.  (Photo by Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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BEIJING (AP) China plans to have 50,000 football academies by 2025 as part of an ambitious blueprint to grow into a soccer superpower.

The announcement, made by China’s football association Vice President Wang Dengfeng, more than doubles the earlier target of 20,000 academies by 2020.

Wang was quoted by state media on Wednesday as saying that each school would be able to train 1,000 young players on average, fulfilling the goal laid out in a plan announced last April of having 50 million competent players.

“This is a solid way to select football talent for our future reserves. Improving Chinese football is no longer just a dream,” Wang was quoted as saying on the website of the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

China’s men have only qualified for one World Cup and President Xi Jinping has made boosting China’s football fortunes a national priority. Plans call for again qualifying for the sport’s marquee event, hosting it and winning the title by 2050.

To that end, China last year signed Brazil’s World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi to take over the national men’s team. The government has also ordered the creation of 70,000 football fields to fill gaps in its youth program.

Teams in China’s professional leagues, meanwhile, have recruited international stars such as Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez on highly paid contracts, raising concerns that they are neglecting home-grown talent.

In response, China’s football association last month said it plans a series of measures in response to “irrational” spending by clubs. It also reduced the number of foreigners who can play per club at any given time from four to three and required that each team’s starting list must include at least two Chinese players under age 23.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”