Preview: Five areas of focus for the United States against Ukraine

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From a distance, Ukraine looks like a solid opponent for a Europe-based United States roster to face their final call up before the pre-World Cup camp in May. Then you see that most of Ukraine’s players haven’t played in two months — that unrest at home is casting this game in a different, diminished perspective for Mykhaylo Fomenko’s team — and the match takes on a whole different meeting. If anything, the 90 minutes the U.S. will play Wednesday at Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium will be less important that the training that led up to it – nothing more than a confirmation of what Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff observed in the two days before kickoff in Larnaca, Cyprus.

For those of us excluded from those sessions (read: most of the world), we’re left reading the tea leaves from a 90-minute steep that starts at 2:00 p.m. Wednesday. Amid those patterns, here’s where we should look for answers from Wednesday’s performance.

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

Do you see the assumption we’ve cooking into the question? Yes, the Stoke City right back is likely to get the call at that position against Ukraine, but he’s also capable of playing central midfield or center back. If Cameron were to start at one of his more preferred positions, it wouldn’t even crack our Top 10 Most Surprising Things Jurgen Klinsmann’s Done list (please see our upcoming slideshow).

But if Cameron does start in his expected spot, watch how he performs going forward. Part of the reason Klinsmann chooses players like Brad Evans and DaMarcus Beasley at fullback may be their ability to read the game like natural midfielders – always putting themselves in positions to maintain those triangles needed to build play through the middle.

Cameron is the team’s best right back defensively. He also has no problem getting forward. He has the athleticism to do both. But can he read the game like Brad Evans or DaMarcus Beasley? That will define whether he can pass the Sounders’ midfielder on the right back depth chart.

(MORE: Players who need to make an impact for the U.S. on Wednesday (and there are a lot of them))

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

The Schalke loanee made his Besiktas debut on Friday against Antalyaspor, going 58 minutes in a 0-0 draw. Earning a start in his first appearance with Slaven Bilic’s team, Jones looks set to get the playing time he expected when he agreed to move to Turkey in January.

For the United States, that means he’ll have time to work himself into shape before the time the team assembles in May – something that renders Wednesday’s performance almost irrelevant. Even if jumped through Yevhan Konoplyanka’s knee and earned a red card in the first minute, he’d still be a first choice when the U.S. faces Ghana.

In the interim, watch how much rust the midfield ruffian has incurred during his two months on the sidelines. We’ll get a good idea of how far he has to go to be ready for Brazil.

(MORE: Fear not, U.S. Men’s National Team fans: Ukraine is on the ground in Cyprus)

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

We’ve seen Jozy Altidore work as hard as he can for Sunderland over the last six months, and it hasn’t been good enough. On Wednesday, Altidore needs to be more than willing. He needs to be effective. If not, questions about his suitability for a place in Klinsmann’s starting XI will persist through May, with Altidore potentially having little chance to regain his confidence this spring with the Black Cats.

(MORE: Losing time at Sunderland, Jozy Altidore needs to impress for U.S.)

4. Wanted: Clint Dempsey of 2012.

He started for Fulham in this weekend and gave one of the best performances of his two-month loan, but as one of the keys to the U.S.’s hopes of getting out of a tough World Cup group, 2014 Clint Dempsey needs to rediscover his 2012 form. That doesn’t mean scoring goals once every two games, but it does mean presenting that threat.

source:  On Wednesday, Dempsey has a chance to show more familiar surroundings can lead to more typical results.

5. Midfield spots up for grabs

A lot of names in defense and attack seem locked in three months ahead of Brazil. In midfield, however, few beyond the possible starters have more than one foot on the plane.

We know Jones and Michael Bradley are going, as are Graham Zusi and Kyle Beckerman. If Landon Donovan doesn’t go, at this point, something’s gone seriously wrong. For what’s likely to be four spots across the middle of the field, we’ve got five names who can plan their family’s trips to Brazil.

Others like Mix Diskerud seem close, but on Wednesday, the fight for those other three or four spots will be in focus. Alejandro Bedoya will try to build  on a strong Gold Cup. Brek Shea hopes to be that change of pace on the left. Sacha Kljestan tries to take advantage of the absence of Diskerud, while Danny Williams attempts to put himself back in the World Cup picture.

It’s the one place in the team were spots are still up for grabs, and while those spots are likely on the bench for the games that count, Wednesday will allow the likes of Bedoya, Shea, Kljestan and Williams to increase their stock. It’s their last chance before the U.S.’s Europe-based players see Klinsmann again in May.

La Liga: Real Madrid win wild one, now just 17 points behind Barca

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona ties club-record 31-game unbeaten run ]

Real Betis 3-5 Real Madrid

So long as they manage to hold off Sevilla for fourth place (Champions League qualification), Real Madrid will quickly move on from their disastrous 2017-18 season, spend a half-billion dollars in the summer and pretend like the 12 preceding months never even happened.

For a brief period on Saturday — nearly 30 minutes including the halftime intermission — that plan appeared fatally flawed and at risk. After going 1-0 up away to Real Betis courtesy of Marco Asensio’s 11th-minute opener, Los Blancos found themselves in big trouble after Aissa Mandi leveled things up in the 33rd minute, followed by a Nacho own goal four minutes later.

Five minutes into the second half, Sergio Ramos drew the visitors level, followed by another from Asensio in the 59th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 4-2 six minutes later, at which point Madrid appeared home free.

Sergio Leon pulled Betis to within one in the 85th minute, but Karim Benzema restored the two-goal lead in the 91st, less than two minutes after replacing Ronaldo.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

With Barcelona still unbeaten on the La Liga season, the title is all but decided with more than three months still to play. That hasn’t stopped Atleti, though, as Diego Simeone’s side, which has lost just once in the league, continues to pursue Lionel Messi and Co. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao moved Los Rojiblancos back to within seven points of Barca with a dozen games, and one head-to-head matchup, still to play.

Kevin Gameiro scored what turned out to be the winner in the 67th minute, followed not long after by Diego Costa‘s second league goal of the season (fourth in all competitions) to make it 2-0.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Sociedad 3-0 Levante
Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal

VAR provider apologizes for wrong image of offside Man Utd goal

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Whether or not you’re in favor of the use of video-assistant refereeing the world over — and, more specifically, English soccer — one thing on which we can all agree has become abundantly clear: VAR’s maiden voyage has been a chaotic, poorly conducted mess.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho demands VAR calls be “perfect” ]

Any change to the game’s century-old rules and practices — especially of VAR’s monumental proportions — must be implemented and executed without a hitch. Any issues that had arisen prior to this weekend were minor in significance and import, but that all changed on Saturday, when Manchester United’s Juan Mata had a goal wiped away by VAR (WATCH HERE).

Mata appeared to have timed his run perfectly and been onside before slotting home to put Man United 2-0 ahead of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. After consulting the off-site video assistant, the goal was taken off the board. While the slightest bit of Mata’s knee appeared to have been in an offside position, the issue lies in the fact that the images provided to television broadcasters, by VAR provider Hawkeye, displayed a clearly crooked line of demarcation.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

Hawkeye issued a statement on Sunday, acknowledging and apologizing for the faulty image provided to broadcasters, but insisted that a correct version of the image was seen by the refereed:

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday. To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologize.”

In the end, by the most stringent interpretation of the law, VAR got the call correct. But that won’t matter one iota in the court of public opinion, as one mistake as simple as a crooked line gives the impression that the entire operation is haphazard and not fit for practice.

Juventus suffers blow with apparent Higuain injury

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The back-and-forth battle at the top of Serie A continued on Sunday as Juventus topped Torino at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, however, the visitors suffered a big injury scare in the process.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup ]

Alex Sandro‘s winner came in the 33rd minute, but the focus of the match will leave all eyes on Gonzalo Higuain — who exited after just a quarter of an hour.

The Argentine international was looking to latch onto a through ball from Miralem Pjanic in the fifth minute, before jumping over an oncoming Salvatore Sirigu — goalkeeper for Torino.

Higuain appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle, though, and while he attempted to continue on in the match he was substituted off for Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes later.

The extent of Higuain’s injury is unknown to this point, however, it comes at a very bad time for Juventus.

The Italian giants are heavily involved in the Serie A title race, holding a two-point lead over Napoli at the top of the table.

Additionally, Juve has important fixtures coming up in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League against Atalanta and Tottenham, respectively. Higuain and Co. are level at 2-2 with Spurs heading into their UCL second leg in early March, and Juve will surely need the striker’s presence to have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.