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Preview: Performances, not final score, the real currency as U.S. takes on Mexico

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The true World Cup hype won’t being until mid-May, when the 30 players named to the United States’ preliminary roster will  convene ahead of the final team’s trip to Brazil. But the anticipation for this summer’s World Cup? It will pick up after tonight’s friendly, with the U.S. facing rival Mexico in Glendale, Ariz. – the teams’ final friendly before the European season ends and focus shifts to this summer’s tournament.

Relying almost exclusively on North America-based players, the game also serves as a kind of Major League Soccer versus Liga MX showdown. Though players taking part in CONCACAF Champions League action are not called up, Miguel Herrera’s side is relying exclusively on players from the Mexican league. And between the out-of-FIFA-window date (leaving most European players with their clubs) and Puebla’s late refusal to release its two U.S. internationals, 19 of the 20 players head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has called into camp play in MLS.

The one except is this weekend’s most talked-about player. Tampa, Fla.-born Julian Green, the 18-year-old Bayern Munich attacker who recently completed his one-time switch to the U.S., should make his first senior international appearance at University of Phoenix Stadium, with the former German youth international expected to see time at some point on Wednesday. When he appears, Green will immediately become one of the best prospects in U.S. soccer history – the first player in the program’s setup who can claim to have a Bayern-esque pedigree.

Klinsmann’s likely starting lineup will also be noteworthy, with Michael Bradley, captain Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan expected to take the field together for the first time since June 2012. Between injuries, sabbatical, and coach’s considerations, the U.S.’s three biggest stars haven’t played in the same side since third round World Cup qualifying in Guatemala. On Wednesday, however, the trio who formed the heart of the 2010 World Cup team’s midfield are each expected to be in Klinsmann’s starting XI.

Elsewhere, the U.S. will be missing some obvious starters. Up top, Jozy Altidore will be absent, remaining with his English team in Sunderland. In goal, Tim Howard is at Everton, while the fullback positions are wide open. The top two options on both the left and right sides — Fabian Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley (left), Brad Evans, Geoff Cameron (right) — remain with their clubs, meaning Michael Parkhurst and one-time international DeAndre Yedlin are likely starters out wide.

In that sense, the half-team feeling that accompanied last month’s friendly against Ukraine could be replicated on Wednesday. Though the tension of the Mexico rivalry and the unique nature of an all-MLS lineup will draw more eyes to today’s game, nearly half the starting XI will feature players unlikely to occupy the same role this summer. With midfielder Jermaine Jones also missing, between five and six spots in Wednesday’s team should see different faces once the U.S. kicks off June 16 against Ghana.

source: APIn the absence of those starters, however, comes a chance for players to prove themselves. In addition to Donovan (right) hoping to impress, whomever starts at fullback will be trying to make strides towards a place on the plane. For Parkhurst, that means cementing a spot that’s thought to be his to lose. For Yedlin, that means continuing his surprise push to snare one of the spots Klinsmann could give to a 2018 prospect.

Up top, Chris Wondowloski will surely see time, even if it’s in relief of Eddie Johnson. The 2012 Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player’s case would be greatly enhanced with a strong performance against a decent (if not full strength) Mexican team. Likewise, players like Brad Davis, Maurice Edu, and Luis Gil will be fighting for places in May’s camp.

And then there’s Green, who has gone from fanciful hope to viable World Cup prospect over the last few months. With the U.S. in need of another wide attacker — particularly one that offers a different look than those already available — the 18-year-old has a path to the final roster, even if he’s yet to play a minute for the team. When he appears, it will be for more than  a mere thank you for flying in from Europe. Green’s audition will be as important as everybody else’s; perhaps more so, given this first impression will be the only one the Bayern Munich II scorer will make before May.

As for Mexico, they will be trying to make the same assessments as the Americans, though from the U.S. point of view, the opposition is almost irrelevant. Between Wednesday and the three games the U.S. will play during May’s farewell tour, Klinsmann’s auditions will take place against a wide variety of styles and quality. No matter the opponents — be they World Cup qualifiers, European minnows, arch rivals or rarely seen foes — players will be expected to perform. The tensions of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry won’t be a mitigating factor when Klinsmann’s making his last cuts for Brazil.

Wednesday in Glendale, the process of selecting that final, 23-man roster picks up in earnest. Against Mexico, players will get apply the last two days’ training, with their performances potentially deciding whether they make May’s preliminary squad.

Though a good final score would help, Wednesday’s most important outcomes will be how players influence their chances of making it to Brazil.

Mourinho lauds Pogba, Zlatan after EFL Cup triumph

United manager Jose Mourinho applauds during the English League Cup final soccer match between Manchester United and Southampton FC at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
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Jose Mourinho knows his side is fortunate to come away with the EFL Cup, and he’s fairly confident who deserves the credit.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored to help Manchester United build a 2-0 lead over Southampton on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, then added the winner in the 87th minute of the Red Devils’ 3-2 win.

[ MORE: Recap | Zlatan reacts | 3 things ]

Mourinho said his “outstanding” legendary striker won the game for United, adding that big buy Paul Pogba was close to the same level.

And while the manager didn’t appear too impressed with the win, admitting that Southampton did not deserve its fate, Mourinho is happy to win. From Sky Sports:

“I’m a bit emotional. It’s not easy to win titles so many times, it’s not easy to cope with the pressure I put myself under all of my career, It was a game I felt was difficult, so credit goes to Southampton. We have the cup in our hands but we should be playing extra-time. Winning is always special. The day I don’t get emotional when I win is the day I go home.”

United is still alive in the FA Cup and the UEFA Europa League, while Mourinho’s men sit sixth in the Premier League table with 48 points. They’ve played one match less than leaders Chelsea, which has 63 points.

Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United scores their third goal during the EFL Cup Final between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Manchester United beat Southampton 3-2 at Wembley on Sunday in a thrilling EFL Cup Final.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s late winner gave Jose Mourinho’s men a largely undeserved victory as the Portuguese manager won his first major trophy as Red Devils boss.

Here’s what we learned from a pulsating, topsy-turvy encounter.


ZLATAN’S THE MAN

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the man for the big occasion.

He scored a superb free kick and a late header to make it two trophies from two trips to Wembley, as he also scored the winner late on against Leicester City in the Community Shield in August.

At the age of 35 he’s defied belief with his 26 goals this season and is showing the world just how good he is. Mourinho said in the week that Zlatan has got better with age and with 26 goals in 38 appearances he continues to look at home in the PL.

He didn’t have his best game, but the big Swede popped up with two vital goals to win the trophy for his team.

Zlatan is a born winner. It’s just what he does.


SLACK UNITED SUCCEED

Somehow Manchester United found themselves 2-0 up against Southampton after 38 minutes. They didn’t deserve it. Not at all. But then again, that’s the sign of a champion.

Southampton should have been 1-0 up after 11 minutes. Cedric cut the ball back from the right flank and Gabbiadini’s goal was chalked out for offside. The Italian striker timed his run to perfection and tapped home. Saints were in dreamland. Well, they should have been. Linesman Stuart Burt put his flag up presumably because he thought Bertrand was interfering with play at the back post. He wasn’t. It was a shocker of a call and ultimately changed the outcome of the game.

Even after going behind to Ibrahimovic’s free kick, Saints did all the pressing. Jesse Lingard put United 2-0 up before the break but United never got a grip on the game as Saints’ wide play bamboozled their full backs. As well as having a perfectly good goal chalked off, Saints also hit the post with Oriol Romeu‘s header in the second half.

Those are the kind of breaks which are going United’s way of late, as they’ve now lost just one game in their past 27 in all competitions.

Mourinho must know his team were lucky to get past Saints and lift the trophy. Then again, he’ll argue that the sign of a true champion is digging out a win when you don’t deserve it.

That’s what he is building.


OFFSIDE DENIES GABBIADINI, SAINTS

Manolo Gabbiadini has scored five goals in his first three games for Southampton after joining from Napoli on Deadline Day in January. He should have had six goals in three games and a hat trick in the EFL Cup Final.

The 25-year-old joined without much fanfare for a fee believed to be around $19 million, with the likes of Everton said to be close to signing him back in the summer. In recent months Gabbiadini felt out of favor at Napoli under manager Maurizio Sarri. Gabbiadini’s goal return hasn’t been too impressive with 25 goals in 76 appearances in the last three seasons.

His movement was sharp throughout and his finishing sublime. Southampton have done some incredible business in the past few years but he may turn out to be the best of the bunch. This defeat was a bitter one for Saints, but if they can continue to buy players of Gabbiadini’s quality then they’ll be fighting for trophies and top 10 finishes for many years to come.

As disappointed as they’ll be, the future is looking bright for Saints.

“My friend, I keep doing it” – Zlatan lifts another Cup

United's Marcos Rojo celebrates with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on the ground, at the end of the English League Cup final soccer match between Manchester United and Southampton FC at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. United won 3-2. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has answered every question, including whether his big game prowess extends to England.

The Big Swede scored early and late as Manchester United won the EFL Cup with a 3-2 win over Southampton on Sunday.

[ RECAP: Man Utd 3-2 Southampton ]

Ibrahimovic has won trophies at every stop from Ajax to Old Trafford, and now has given Jose Mourinho the distinction of being the first manager to win the League Cup with two different clubs.

From the BBC:

“This is a team effort. This is what I came for – to win and I am winning. The more I win the more satisfied I get.

“You appreciated it more the older you get. Wherever I have gone I have won. I think this is trophy number 32 for me.

“This is what I predicted. To many I could not do it. My friend, I keep doing it. I’m enjoying it in England.”

He sure is.

Zlatan the hero as Manchester United wins EFL Cup

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United (C) celebrates with Eric Bailly (L) and Paul Pogba (R) as he scores their first goal during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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  • Zlatan opens, closes scoring
  • Mourinho wins first tourney with Utd
  • Lingard scores
  • Gabbiadini with Saints brace

Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose to the occasion at Wembley Stadium, scoring early and late as Manchester United defeated Southampton 3-2 in an instant classic EFL Cup Final on Sunday.

Jesse Lingard also scored as Jose Mourinho became the first manager to win a League Cup with two sides (Chelsea).

Manolo Gabbiadini scored twice as Saints erased a 2-0 deficit in their first final since 1979.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Paul Pogba unleashed a furious shot from 20-plus yards in the 4th minute that Fraser Forster popped away from danger for the match’s first moment of danger.

Saints earned a corner with their first true bit of possession, which came almost exclusively from the dribbling of Nathan Redmond. It led to another corner, which Pogba eventually sent free of trouble.

Poor defending from United from Marcos Rojo nearly put Saints in front, but an incorrectly ruled offside Manolo Gabbiadini put the ball in the goal.

Oriol Romeu earned a yellow card for a late tackle on Ander Herrera, cueing up United for a 19th minute free kick that Ibrahimovic sent home.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Gabbiadini then fed James Ward-Prowse for a strong shot that De Gea did very well to slap away.

Soon after, it was Dusan Tadic‘s turn. Cued up by Redmond, he forced De Gea into another excellent save.

Lingard made it 2-0 before halftime, given plenty of room to position Rojo’s pass for a successful strike.

But Gabbiadini got his goal just before the break, slipping behind Eric Bailly to poke home Saints’ first.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Manolo Gabbiadini of Southampton (20) celebrates as he scores their second goal with Oriol Romeu of Southampton (14) during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The second half began just as lively, with De Gea making a stop on Redmond’s solid effort from inside the 18.

And Saints earned the corner that led to their equalizer moments later, Gabbiadini again the proverbial fox in the box to score on a half turn.

The game had passed the hour mark when Romeu headed a chance off the post.

Pogba and Ibrahimovic presided over another free kick in the 74th minute, but the wall did its job to keep the score 2-2.

Lingard lashed over soon after, and subsequently left the match for Marcus Rashford. Claude Puel also made a move, taking off Dusan Tadic for Sofiane Boufal.

It was fellow sub Shane Long who missed a chance to make it 3-2 when Ryan Bertrand blazed a run down the left to send an inviting ball across goal.

That’s when United won it. Ibrahimovic blazed down the field on a counter attack, but slowed up to let the Red Devils set up shop. Martial found Herrera on the right side of the box, and cross for the noggin of Ibrahimovic, who headed through the hands of Forster.