U.S. vs. Azerbaijan: Three things that could matter, come Brazil

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The big lesson from Tuesday night? The U.S. has a lot of work to do. There’s no way a performance like tonight’s against Azerbaijan carries water in Brazil; then again, it doesn’t have to. The U.S. has three weeks to improve before meeting Ghana on June 16. Tonight established a baseline, but it’s not the level the team will take into Natal.

That doesn’t mean tonight’s performance was irrelevant. In addition to that baseline, there were some small, subtle indicators of what the U.S. might look like when they finally face the Black Stars. Between the play of its new right back, the positioning of its wide midfielders, and the ease of its center backs, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men provided some hints of what the team might look like 20 days from now.

[MORE: Diskerud, Johannsson come through | Player ratings | Subs shine]

Here’s three things we learned on Tuesday night that may matter in Brazil:

1. The new right back can sure cover some ground …

We all knew Brad Evans was a midfielder doing his best in an improvised role, but it’s still amazing to be reminded how much ground an athlete like Fabian Johnson can cover at right back.

For those who watched Hoffenheim this season, this is no revelation, and fans who’ve called for Johnson to get the call on the left did so remembering his ability to get up the field on that flank. At right back, however, it’s been a while since the U.S. has used somebody that can so effortlessly get from penalty area-to-byline. Johnson, mostly a left-sided player before tonight for the U.S., looked like a solution.

2. … which is good, because the “wingers” are going to have to be very strong in the middle.

U.S. Soccer advertised tonight’s formation as a diamond midfield, but given the depth at which Michael Bradley was playing, this was closer to a setup we’d see on Bob Bradley than something from Jason Kreis’s whiteboard (even if it wasn’t that, either). Regardless, the widest midfielders — Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi, in the starting XI — were often staying as narrow as the defense’s channels, setting up in a formation that will rely almost on its fullbacks for width.

Given the pair Klinsmann’s starting there, it’s not the worst idea. Why not use players like Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley to help the team better use that space in front of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones? If the U.S. can rely on its midfielders-cum-fullbacks to man the flanks, Klinsmann can get numbers in the middle.

3. The new center back tandem looked comfortable together, but they were untested.

Given how little Azerbaijan threatened the U.S., there’s almost nothing you can say about the team’s starting center back tandem: Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron. Almost.

If you’re looking for a reason to be encouraged, look at not only duo’s play on the ball (aside from a few Besler miscues) but the times Cameron jumped into midfield to try to keep possession in the Azerbaijani half. The thin, perhaps premature lesson: After two weeks working together in Palo Alto, the Cameron-Besler pair looked like a tandem that’s used to playing with each other; or, at least, a duo that knows what it wants to become.

Big, huge caveat, though: It’s only Azerbaijan.

New York Red Bulls ink goalkeeper Luis Robles to new deal

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The “Iron Man” will keep up his amazing journey with the New York Red Bulls, after signing a new deal with the club on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder on verge of joining Los Angeles FC ]

Goalkeeper Luis Robles has extended his contract with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, as the American continues to raise his consecutive starts streak, which stands at 157.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the club’s release.

Robles joined the Red Bulls back in 2012 after playing in Germany, and the shot-stopper hasn’t missed a start ever since.

Report: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson

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Minnesota United has had its shares of ups and down in its debut MLS season, but the Loons are on the verge making an exciting young signing.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder closing in on Los Angeles FC move ]

ESPN FC is reporting that Minnesota will sign Hearts winger Sam Nicholson from the Scottish Premier League on a deal that makes him a Loon until 2019.

The young attacker is expected to join the MLS side when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

Nicholson, 22, has played with the Edinburgh side since his youth days, and made his senior debut with the club in 2013. During his time at Hearts, Nicholson scored 16 goals in all competitions for the team.

Last season, Nicholson missed 16 matches due to a significant knee injury.

According to the report, Scottish sides Rangers and Aberdeen were also among those interested in acquiring Nicholson, while English Championship clubs Bristol City and Barnsley also reached out about the attacker.

Premier League vet Scott Parker calls quits on playing career

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Scott Parker has announced his retirement from soccer after a stellar 20-plus year career in England.

[ MORE: Chile bests Portugal on PKs to reach Confed Cup final ]

The 36-year-old spent almost the entirety of his career in the Premier League, and played with seven teams during his time on the pitch.

“I believe now is the right time to move on to the next chapter in my life and career,” Parker said in a statement.

“I feel incredibly honoured and proud to have enjoyed the career that I have and I’ve loved every moment of it.”

Parker began playing with Charlton after coming up through the team’s youth academy, before completing a move to Chelsea in 2004.

Throughout his career, Parker also spent time at Newcastle, West Ham and Tottenham, before finishing up at Fulham this past season.

Three storylines when Mexico meets Germany in Confed Cup semis

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With a place in the final on the line tomorrow afternoon, it’s all or nothing for Mexico and Germany as they meet in the second semifinal at this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup.

The two nations have had very similar paths in reaching the final four, after both accumulated seven points during the group stage and showed signs of improvement with every match.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s FIFA Confederations Cup action ]

Here are some of the key battles to watch on Thursday when Mexico and Germany square off for a place in the final.

How does Germany’s youth hold up vs. Mexico’s experience?

Even when Jurgen Low released his roster heading into the Confederations Cup, much was expected of the Germans. After a strong run of play during the group stage, Low’s men have lived up to the billing with an exciting young attack and an improving backline to match.

When Germany meets Mexico though, the defending World Cup champions will be taking on an El Tri side that has loads of international experience, and similar to that of Chile, the Europeans will surely receive all that they can handle.

At the tender age of 23, Julian Draxler captains the Germans and has been challenged with leading his nation throughout the tournament. The PSG attacker has been quality thus far, but he and his side will take on a whole different task on Thursday against a quick, feisty Mexican group.

Will Hirving Lozano be the difference in the attack?

Injuries and a key suspension will certain hinder Mexico in the semifinal round, but the bigger question is: how will Juan Carlos Osorio’s side cope with the losses?

El Tri know it will be without winger Andres Guardado due to yellow card accumulation, while striker Javier Hernandez is in question ahead of the Germany clash after reportedly training by himself on Monday.

Although Hernandez likely just needed rest after a busy season of matches in the Bundesliga, Mexico is still seeking a quality playmaker to replace Guardado on Thursday, one that they’re hoping with be Hirving Lozano.

The newly-signed PSV man has quickly become one of the top young faces in global soccer, and with three international goals for El Tri dating back to 2016, Lozano is the spark that Mexico needs.

El Tri must start fast

In all three of Mexico’s group stage matches Osorio’s side fell behind during the first half. While El Tri managed to come away unscathed to remain perfect in group play, it’s difficult to imagine that they will be able to pull off the same feat against a quality German side.

On the other hand, Mexico’s resilience has been impressive. In their opener against Portugal, El Tri pulled off a late winner against the reigning European champions, a result that likely set the tone for the team’s ensuing comebacks versus New Zealand and Russia, respectively.