Late Diskerud, Johannsson goals deliver 2-0 win for U.S. over Azerbaijan

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Seventy-one places separate the United States from European minnows Azerbaijan in FIFA’s rankings, but after 74 minutes in San Francisco, there was nothing between the two nations on the soccer field. With late goals from Mikkel Diskerud and Aron Johannsson, however, the World Cup-bound U.S. were able to take a 2-0 win from their 85th-ranked guests, giving the team a slow but positive start to its Brazil 2014 buildup.

The U.S. created two good chances in the first half, but after two crosses for impromptu starter Chris Wondolowski were headed at Azerbaijan goalkeeper Karman Agayev, the teams returned to the locker room scoreless. In the second half, off a restart by Brad Davis, a Michael Bradley shot was blocked in front of goal by Agayev, leaving an opportunistic Diskerud to give the U.S. its late relief. Six minutes later, a corner kick allowed Johannsson to provide the home side’s insurance.

The U.S. continues its send-off series on Sunday against Turkey in Harrison, N.J. On June 7, the U.S. will face Nigeria in its final match before leaving for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

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Providing few surprises in his starting lineup, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann selected an initial XI that could also start June 16 against Ghana. Clint Dempsey, the team’s captain, was called on with Jozy Altidore up top, while a midfield built around Michael Bradley also featured Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, and Alejandro Bedoya. At the back, Geoff Cameron started in central defense beside Matt Besler, with fullbacks Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley completing the four in front of Tim Howard.

The day’s first surprise arrived shortly before kickoff when Dempsey was scratched from that starting XI. In his place, Wondolowski, playing in front of a largely home crowd, was chosen to partner Jozy Altidore up top, with tightness in the captain’s quadriceps forcing Dempsey from the starting lineup.

The first half’s best chances dropped for the man who was supposed to start on the bench, with Agayev called on twice to keep Wondolowski headers from giving the States an opening goal. In the fifth minute, a restart from the right by Zusi found an unmarked Wondolowski just outside the side-yard box, but the San Jose captain’s diving header went found Karman’s left knee after bouncing in front of goal. Just over 10 minutes later, Alejandro Bedoya beat his man on the right before finding Wondolowski eight yards out, with a strong hand from the Azerbaijan keeper putting the shot out for a corner.

With only one speculative chance testing Howard over the first 45 minutes, the teams reached halftime scoreless, prompting Klinsmann to make three of his six substitutions: Omar Gonzalez, believed to be fighting for a spot in the starting lineup, came in for Geoff Cameron; Timothy Chandler replaced DaMarcus Beasley at left back; while Zusi gave way for Davis.

Though a near-penalty in the 50th minute hinted Klinsmann’s changes might break through his team’s conservative opponent, the first half eventually began mirroring the first, just without the Wondolowski chances. Play moving from flank-to-flank failed to generate chances before the U.S. was dispossessed and briefly pushed back into their own half. After each inevitable Azerbaijan giveaway, the process would start anew.

By the 75th minute, the match looked destined to end in a draw, but converting on some penalty area chaos, the U.S. finally went in front. On a ball that dropped in the box after an Azerbaijani defender’s failed clearance, Michael Bradley forced Agayev to leave a saved shot in front of goal. There Diskerud, on the pitch for only four minutes, finishing into the right of goal to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.

Six minutes later, Azerbaijan’s weakness on set pieces was finally exploited. Off a Davis corner from the right of goal, Johannsson uncoiled onto a shot inside the near post, giving the U.S. its insurance.

The 2-0 final also gave the U.S. a result it would have expected, but going 74 minutes without a goal, the team played like a group taking the first, tentative steps of a much longer journey. Klinsmann will look for improvement on June 1.

Lineups

United States: Tim Howard; Fabian Johnson (DeAndre Yedlin 62′), Geoff Cameron (Omar Gonzalez 46′), Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley (Timothy Chandler 46′); Graham Zusi (Brad Davis 46′), Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya (Mix Diskerud 71′); Chris Wondolowski (Aron Johannsson 62′), Jozy Altidore

Goals: Diskerud 75′, Johannsson 81′

Azerbaijan: Agayev, Abisov (Hüseynov 46′), Sukurov (Qırtımov 46′), Ramaldanov, Budak, Qarayev, Yunuszada, Abatsiyev (Medvedev 71′), Cavadov (Nazarov 60′), Aliyev, Dadasov (Fardjad-Azad 66′)

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday