Lesson of the day: Still a lot to learn about Jurgen Klinsmann

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Nobody likes to look dumb, but over the past two weeks, Jurgen Klinsmann’s done a good job making so many U.S. soccer followers look foolish. Some prescient souls saw Eddie Johnson missing the 30-man squad, while others suspected the qualifying faith Klinsmann showed in Brad Evans would expire come June. For the most part, Thursday’s announcement created a graveyard of predictions, with their authors left to mourn the failure of their foresight.

Few people thought Landon Donovan would be going home, and most of those who did thought he’d get a full camp to play his way to Brazil. And the slew of 2018-looking choices? Some thought it could break that way, but not at the expense of people like Donovan, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst. Today, ours is a profession of humbled souls.

On the surface, it looks like conventional wisdom took a huge hit on Thursday, but that assumes there is any conventional wisdom when comes to Klinsmann. That may not be the case. Honest, affable and at times blunt in his assessments of his own squad, the U.S. boss gives the impression he’s being open, but just like any head coach, there are times when that honesty is more forthright than others.

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Take Landon Donovan. Coming out of last month’s friendly against Mexico, Klinsmann ran cover for the struggling icon by pointing to a knee problem as the reason he didn’t start over Brad Davis. Now, particularly with Donovan missing no time for the Galaxy, it’s clear that wasn’t the only reason. Brad Davis was just better, to Klinsmann’s mind, so was Chris Wondolowski as a potential forward option. Somehow, most people didn’t get the hint.

Instead, most applied instinct to the problem, eventually concluding that a man of Donovan’s résumé couldn’t be excluded. They applied past experience to the quandary and came up with no relevant scenarios where Donovan would be left home. We all fell back on what we perceived as common sense only to realize the common sense we’ve developed doesn’t apply to Klinsmann. The team’s head coach had somehow taken the job without incorporating any of our assumptions.

[MORE from SOCCERLY: Klinsmann’s son deletes cruel Donovan tweet, deletes account]

With the shock of Thursday’s announcement finally settling it, there are five assumptions that now seem particularly flawed:

source: Reuters
Brad Evans (C) of the U.S. celebrates with his teammate Graham Zusi (R), as they run past Jamaica’s Alvas Powell, after scoring a goal in their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Kingston June 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy)

1. Qualifying definitely matters – Time with the national team during the last two years’ was important, but the spells we saw on television was a small part of a bigger picture. We players like Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans play important roles, but we didn’t see how close their competition was to over taking them. We didn’t see as the training, testing, and progression. We didn’t know what each player was being asked to do.

For Klinsmann, perhaps more than most coaches, those aspects are important. It’s a sign of your professionalism. In some cases, that leaves players slipping out of the team, but in others, the approach provides an opportunity to make up the gap.

Players like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski took advantage of their opportunities both in games and out. Others did not.

2. 2018 is four years away – With players like Donovan, Edu, Evans seemingly fighting for places, three spots for 2018 prospects seemed difficult to justify. But that also assumed players like Goodson, Evans, and Parkhurst were likely to go. Free up those spots, and the DeAndre Yedlins and John Brooks of the world have room.

The problem heading into Thursday’s announcement was assuming the virtues of competition Klinsmann espoused throughout qualifying — the idea of using the cycle to prove yourself for Brazil — would preclude him adopting a focus on 2018. Thursday reminded of something we should have kept in mind all along: Klinsmann’s not only building a team for a World Cup. He’s building a program.

3. May was going to be a competition – Central midfield. Right back. Attack, both in midfield and up top. The theory was that May would be used to let these battles play out – that the friendlies would serve as auditions. Obviously, that assumption is wrong.

Klinsmann has always put a premium of what you show in training and how you test in the gym. It’s doesn’t supersede results on the field, but it does augment them. After looking at his bubble players for a week, Klinsmann had seen enough. How players performed over a week’s time in camp either confirmed or denied what Klinsmann already knew.

source: Getty Images
Timothy Chandler (L) of Nuernberg battles for the ball with Juan Arango of Moenchengladbach during the Bundesliga match between 1.FC Nuernberg and Borussia Moenchengladbach at Easy Credit Stadium. Chandler made the U.S.’s final World Cup 2014 squad. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Bongarts/Getty Images)

4. Klinsmann would approach this like other coaches – When Bob Bradley was short on forwards before leaving for South Africa, he called in the likes of Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez, and Eddie Johnson to fight it out. Klinsmann could have done the same with some of his question marks, but he chose not to.

He didn’t wait until June 2 to make a decision on the Timmy Chandlers, Yedlins, and Brooks of the world. Whereas other coaches would have wanted to use Nigeria and Turkey as tests, Klinsmann’s going to use them to refine his final product.

5. The same criteria applied to everybody – Why is Brad Davis going while Landon Donovan stays? That’s apples to apples. The idea of Donovan going ahead of Green, Brooks, or Yedlin? Apples to orange seeds.

These last three years have been about competition, but when the roster was finally named, that competition meant different things for different players. Brad Evans hit all the marks, but he still lost out, and although Michael Parkhurst had seemingly proved his value, he’s returning to Columbus. Yedlin and Timmy Chandler, clearly judged against different criteria, are going to Brazil.

The extent to which any of Klinsmann’s choices were right or wrong is a different discussion. What’s clearly been proven wrong is our assumptions.

So many of the principles we tried to apply to Klinsmann’s selection were ill-founded. Even after three years, we seem to know so little about the U.S.’s boss.

MORE ON US ROSTER ANNOUNCEMENT

Mourinho: “Paul made a big effort”

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho had fine words for Paul Pogba, but was tickled by the performance of 21-year-old Scott McTominay in the Red Devils scoreless draw with Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: Sevilla 0-0 Man Utd ]

The visitors emerged unscathed, though without an away goal, and Mourinho raised eyebrows when he kept Pogba on the bench to start the match. The young McTominay started the match, and was paired with Pogba once Ander Herrera left the match with injury.

When a reporter asked Mourinho about McTominay after the match, the boss asked if he could give the reporter a hug before elaborating (via the BBC):

“In the press conference, the questions were about Paul [Pogba] but the question should be about the kid. He was fantastic. He did everything well. He put pressure on Ever Banega and stopped him playing, he’s their playmaker. I think Scott was brilliant.

“I think Paul made a big effort to try to give the team what I asked of him. Paul replaced Ander, he tried to bring to the game the same kind of qualities. He lost a couple of possessions but he also gave us stability because we had a good percentage of possession for the way we played.”

Mourinho was sure to include Nemanja Matic as a big part of the midfield trio.

The Pogba-Mourinho questions aren’t going to go away any time soon, though it should be noted — perhaps strongly — that the player was ill this weekend and United has to face Chelsea in Premier League play this weekend.

Still, he couldn’t help but mention how much he believes “Old Trafford has missed a big European night,” and how he’s looking forward to a potentially big win come March 13.

Nil-nil in Seville as De Gea stars

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  • English sides unbeaten vs. La Liga in UCL season (2-6)
  • Pogba subs into match for Herrera, 17′
  • De Gea with seven saves for United

David De Gea was the star as Manchester United escaped Sevilla with a scoreless draw in the first leg of the two sides’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sevilla won a corner kick within 90 seconds, but the ball made its way through the 18 without finding a receiver.

Ander Herrera sprung Alexis Sanchez down the middle, but Jesus Navas cut across to catch the Chilean and thwart the United chance.

Navas then dragged a shot across goal and past a diving David De Gea but inches wide of the far post.

A Herrera injury — yes, another injury United supporters — meant Paul Pogba would join the fray after just 17 minutes with the key position in the 4-3-3.

Lukaku botched a terrific diagonal cross from Sanchez with a blast over the goal in the 25th minute.

The 38th minute saw Scott McTominay pump a ball right at Sergio Rico for the Sevilla backstop’s first save, and Angl Correa’s low shot was collected by De Gea for a third Red Devils save.

De Gea then made a leaping save on Steven N’Zonzi’s redirection of a bicycle kick just before halftime, and then slapped Luis Muriel’s header over the bar before the whistle.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

De Gea nabbed another save, his sixth in the contest, when Clement Lenglet got his head on an Ever Banega free kick in the 64th minute.

A Sanchez giveaway provided Sevilla the chance to counter, and Muriel couldn’t get the step back needed to power a header past De Gea.

United had a goal pulled back in the 83rd minute as the ball struck Lukaku’s arm in the build-up.

Fred’s vicious free kick leads Shakhtar over Roma

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Facundo Ferreyra and Fred scored second half goals to lead Shakhtar Donetsk past AS Roma 2-1 at the Donbass Arena in Wednesday’s first leg of the clubs’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

Cendig Under scored his fifth goal in four matches as AS Roma did manage an away goal before the March 13 second leg in Rome.

Fred has been linked with a summer move to Man City, and the banger of a free kick showed part of the reason the Brazilian is in demand.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Roma is bidding to make its first UEFA Champions League quarterfinal since 2007-08 when they went out at the hands of Manchester United, while Shakhtar last made the quarters only to be dismissed by Barcelona in 2010-11.

Ukrainian backstop Andriy Pyatov had an early save on Edin Dzeko off a cross from Aleksandar Kolarov, two minutes after Kolarov mailed a free kick over the bar.

Kolarov and Dzeko remained big parts of the story line, though Pyatov and the Shakhtar defense stood tall.

Dzeko would wind up assisting the opener, and it was the in form Under who’d bury his chance.

Not soon after the break, though, Yaroslav Rakitskiy cued up Ferreyra for the equalizer.

And Fred but the hosts ahead with this outstanding free kick, what they’d call a “bar down bingo” in hockey.

Madrid beats Leganes 3-1 in game postponed from December

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid overcame the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and other regular starters Wednesday, coming from behind to defeat Leganes 3-1 Wednesday in a Spanish league match postponed from last year.

The result allowed the defending champions to regain third place from Valencia, but it did little to put Zinedine Zidane’s team back in the title race as it still trails leader Barcelona by 14 points after 24 matches. Madrid is seven points behind second-place Atletico Madrid.

[ MORE: Messi defies Conte’s successful tactics ]

Less than a month ago, Leganes jolted Madrid into a crisis by eliminating the Spanish powerhouse from the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

The hosts from southern Madrid went ahead less than 10 minutes into the match on Wednesday, but Madrid answered with first-half goals by Lucas Vazquez and Casemiro. Sergio Ramos sealed the victory by converting a 90th-minute penalty kick.

The league match was rescheduled from the 16th round because of Madrid’s participation in the Club World Cup in December, a competition it won.

Only in its second season in the first division, Leganes had a promising start to the campaign but has struggled recently. It hasn’t won in six matches and has lost four straight, dropping to 13th with 29 points.

Madrid has won four in a row, including 3-1 against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League last week.

Ronaldo, who scored twice against PSG and has 10 goals in his last six matches, was rested on Wednesday along with goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are trying to recover from injuries in time for next month’s return match against PSG in Paris.

Leganes opened the scoring with a goal by Unai Bustinza six minutes into the match at Butarque Stadium. The defender dived in front of the ball as Madrid left back Theo Hernandez tried to clear it from near the goal line. The ball ricocheted off Bustinza’s head and shoulder and went into the net.

Madrid equalized five minutes later with Vazquez’s low shot into the far corner from inside the area after a through ball by Casemiro, and 20 minutes later it was the Brazilian defensive midfielder who found the net from close range after a pass by Vazquez.

Ramos scored from the penalty spot after Mateo Kovacic was pushed inside the area in the closing minutes.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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