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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.

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United (L) shoots while Erik Pieters of Stoke City (R) attempts to block the shot during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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  • Man Utd leads all-time 43W-34D-28L
  • Clubs even in last six (2-2-2)
  • Red Devils unbeaten in 16
  • Stoke winners of two-straight

After wins over Sunderland and Watford, Stoke City gets a higher class of opponent on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Fortunately for Stoke, it’s had some success against Manchester United in recent years.

Stoke and United drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Oct. 2, though Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils are flying now. United is hard to break down, and arguably deserved better than the 1-1 draw it earned versus Liverpool last weekend.

Stoke is now 11 points clear of the drop zone, and a win could raise its status to closer to the Top Five than Bottom Three. United, meanwhile, wants three points that would move it to precipice of the Top Four.

 

What they’re saying

Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan on facing United“There has been a wind of change there and the supporters seem a lot happier now and you get the sense that they are together as a group now. You only have to look at the players within the squad, and even the ones who are leaving, to see how much strength in depth they have there.”

Jose Mourinho praises newly-extended Antonio Valencia“I don’t think it is a reward, I don’t see it in this perspective. I just think he is the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football. It is just for us to keep the best. I don’t think it is a reward. It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man.”

Prediction

United gets it done, only barely. Stoke will put up a brave battle for boss Mark Hughes, but there are too many weapons to suppress. United, 1-0.

AFCON wrap: Results keep Group C undecided

Ivory Coast's Wilfried Bony controls the ball on his head during their training session at the Stade Akoakam, Oyem, Gabon, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match against Congo. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Like Group A, Group C in the Africa Cup of Nations has very little decided ahead of the final group stage match.

[ MORE: Guardiola “said goodbye to title” ]

Ivory Coast 2-2 DR Congo

A thrilling first half had DR Congo leading 1-0 and 2-1, with only Wilfried Bony netting for the Ivory Coast. Les Elephants grabbed a draw through Serey Die’s 67th minute goal.

DR Congo now leads the group and is primed to advance with a result against Togo or a Morocco loss or draw against Ivory Coast.

Morocco 3-1 Togo

Mathieu Dossevi gave Togo a surprise fifth minute lead lead, but Aziz Bouhaddouz kickstarted the Moroccan attack to plug the victors into Group C’s second spot ahead of a Jan. 24 showdown with Ivory Coast.

Saturday’s matches

Ghana vs. Mali — 11 a.m. ET
Egypt vs. Uganda — 2 p.m. ET

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Swansea City

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Jefferson Montero of Swansea City is challenged by Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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  • Liverpool leads all-time 22W-8D-10L
  • Swans lost five-straight at Anfield
  • Reds unbeaten in 7 PL matches

One of the Premier League’s top attacks hosts the division’s leakiest defense, as Liverpool may be licking its chops ahead of a visit from struggling Swansea City on Saturday (Watch live at 7:30 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool has drawn at Sunderland and Manchester United in its last two Premier League outings, and sits seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

Swansea City has allowed multiple goals in five of six PL matches since beating Sunderland 3-0 on Dec. 10. It’s no surprise that they’ve lost those five (the sixth being a 2-1 win at struggling Crystal Palace).

What they’re saying

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp on the match“We’re really looking forward to this game. I don’t know when it happened but in England every game now is like a final. Swansea are trying to survive. I don’t know when the title run-in will start, maybe now and we’re in the race. I hope for a special atmosphere tomorrow.”

Swansea City back Federico Fernandez on Liverpool“They are a team that is very strong going forward and that is shown by the number of goals they have scored. If you lose a little bit of focus against these teams then they have the players that will punish you every time. But it’s not only defending strongly when they are attacking, it is also how we keep hold of the ball and how we use it when in possession.”

Prediction

Swansea boss Paul Clement has his hands full, and is grabbing reinforcements in the transfer window (Luciano Narsingh, Martin Olsson, Tom Carroll). That won’t be enough to handle what Liverpool will dish out Saturday, as the Reds break free with a 3-0 win.

Saints’ Fonte moves to West Ham for $10 million

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West Ham has been linked with big name strikers since the summer, but the Irons’ big January transfer to date is a center back.

EURO champion and Southampton mainstay Jose Fonte is moving to London.

[ MORE: West Brom finally sells Berahino ]

Fonte, 33, makes an approximately $10 million move from the South Coast, where the Portuguese back will better Slaven Bilic‘s back line while forcing Southampton to find an answer alongside Virgil Van Dijk.

It’s been a strange trip to London for Fonte and Southampton, detailed by our own Joe Prince-Wright here. Fonte joined Saints during the 2009-10 season, and became a cult hero at St. Mary’s in helping the club move from League One to the Europa League in just over a half-decade.

Something won’t feel right about seeing Fonte in claret and blue, and Saints host West Ham on Feb. 4. Should be quite interesting.