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United States vs. Nigeria: Three things that could matter, come Brazil

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It was the team’s most impressive send-off performance. Against a World Cup-qualified team, the United States was clearly the better side, with a slump-busting day from its main goal-scorer giving the team reason to believe all cylinders could be firing come June 16th.

Over 90 minutes in Jacksonville, Fla., however, we also saw a lot of things that may not matter at the World Cup. Nigeria may be joining the U.S. in Brazil, but the Super Eagles provided fewer tests than Turkey did a week ago. With three changes to his lineup, Klinsmann may not have thrown out the XI he plans to use against Ghana. And with Brad Davis picking up an injury in training, the U.S. may not a full team at its disposal.

From what may matter in nine days, though, here’s what stood out:

1. Formation need not be an obsession – When Jurgen Klinsmann fed into the U.S.’s growing diamond craze by stacking Michael Bradley on top of Jermaine Jones against Azerbaijan, he started an obsession he eventually pushed back against earlier this week.

Against Nigeria, the U.S. again scoffed at that obsession, deploying a lopsided formation that’s difficult to fit into any neat description. While there may be some post-match discussion about the numeric label (4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2?), hopefully there will be voices echoing Klinsmann’s. Those descriptions are often too reductive, if not outright misleading and irrelevant.

More relevant is realizing what the parts were trying to do. Clint Dempsey was shading left but stayed high, allowing him to come in and play a connecting role. Michael Bradley was the highest man in midfield, with Jermaine Jones shading left near the middle’s deepest man, Kyle Beckerman. Alejandro Bedoya helped on the right in a way that made it unclear if he was a winger or a central midfielder.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Like most coaches, Klinsmann put 10 out-field players in the places that served their skills and his purpose. It was function first, a philosophy that’s always driven Klinsmann’s choices. Whatever we now want to call it is for our own benefit.

2. Protecting the defense will be as important as the defense itself – Until late, when the game opened up after the U.S.’s second goal, the team’s central defenders had a relatively easy day, with Nigerian play that was successfully funneled to the flanks rarely testing the men in the middle. With Dempsey high on the left and Bedoya often tucked in, the Super Eagles were almost pushed into going their left, drawn away from the side of the States’ defense that proved so problematic against Turkey.

Fabian Johnson wasn’t perfect at the back, but thanks to Bedoya’s hard work, Nigeria was often left with corner kicks, unable to bring the ball back into the center. With Beckerman and Jones in the middle, most attempts to break through the U.S. block led to turnovers, with quick connections to Bradley and Dempsey springing the team’s counter.

For all the debate about who’ll start next to Besler and which makeshift left back should get the call in Brazil, Saturday reminded us of another important lesson in defending. If the forwards and midfielders do their jobs, the players you start along the back may not be the most important part. As the game’s final minutes showed us, those players certainly matter, but defense starts higher up the field.

3. An in form Jozy Altidore can end matches early – Let’s skip over the first goal. As nice as it was to see Altidore get on the scoresheet, that was a gimme – a pretty strong argument against the lark that there are no easy goals.

The second goal, however, was the back-breaker. Perhaps Vincent Enyeama should have stopped it, and Efe Ambrose certainly should have kept Alitdore from coming onto his strong foot, but with an authoritative blast that took advantage of their mistakes, Altidore put the match away. The final 22 minutes were the match’s denouement.

Thanks to Altidore, turning a Michael Bradley diagonal into an insurance goal, Saturday’s match was over by the 68th minute. Nigeria may have found some late consolation, but given the open play before Victor Moses’ goal, both teams knew Altidore had delivered the result.

Champions League roundup: Roma self-destruct at home; Celtic sneak into group stage

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 23:  Felipe of FC Porto scores the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League qualifying playoff round second leg match between AS Roma and FC Porto at Stadio Olimpico on August 23, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Tuesday’s action in the UEFA Champions League qualification play-off round…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Roma 0-3 (1-4) Porto

Roma finished Tuesday’s second leg with just nine players and no chance of Champions League glory this season after Daniele De Rossi and Emerson Palmieri were shown red cards either side of halftime. Of course, the home side had already conceded to go 1-0 down on the night (2-1 on aggregate). It was a simple header by Felipe that put the Portuguese side in front, a lead they would never relinquish.

Porto put the game and the tie away with a pair of goals scored by Mexican national teamers, Miguel Layun and Jesus Corona inside the game’s final 20 minutes.

Monaco 1-0 (3-1) Villarreal

Monaco came into the second leg with a 2-1 lead — and two away goals — meaning any drawing score would put them through. For 89 minutes on Tuesday, it was a scoreless stalemate with Villarreal, but Fabinho grabbed a late goal from the penalty spot and secured the Ligue 1 side’s place in the group stage.

Hapoel Beer Sheva 2-0 (4-5) Celtic

Brendan Rodgers‘ side made it as tight and nervy as they possibly could do, but Celtic are through to the group stage after dropping the second, 2-0 in Israel. It was 1-0 after 20 minute and 2-0 after 48 minutes, but the hosts needed a third goal to win the tie on away goals, and it never came.

Elsewhere in CL play-off action

Legia Warsaw 1-1 (3-1) Dundalk
Viktoria Plzen 2-2 (2-4) Ludogorets Razgrad

Wednesday’s schedule

Borussia Monchengladbach (3) vs. (1) BSC Young Boys
Rostov (1) vs. (1) Ajax
Red Bull Salzburg (1) vs. (1) Dinamo Zagreb
APOEL (0) vs. (1) Copenhagen

Changes to Champions League format, payouts up for discussion on Thursday

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  The  UEFA Champions League trophy is displayed prior to the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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GENEVA (AP) The richest clubs and biggest leagues in Europe are set to tighten their grip on the Champions League’s future format and prize money this week.

A deal being prepared by UEFA should end threats by some elite clubs to break away and form a closed European Super League before 2021.

However, it could ensure that more guaranteed places in the 32-team group stage and bigger shares of billion-dollar prize money each season will go to teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus from the four highest-ranked national leagues.

In the hours before the group-stage draw on Thursday, a series of meetings with clubs and UEFA executive committee members in Monaco is expected to agree changes to entry slots for the 2018-2021 seasons.

UEFA and the influential European Club Association declined to comment on reports that the top leagues – in Spain, Germany, England and Italy – will each get four direct entries into the groups.

In a statement to The Associated Press, UEFA said only that it “expects to announce the evolution” of the Champions League at a news conference on Friday.

Italian clubs are looking to be the big winner. Serie A would offer four direct entries to the group stage, compared to two in the current three-season commercial cycle which expires in 2018.

Spain, England and Germany would also benefit by ending the risk of its fourth-placed club losing in the playoff round each August. Advancing through the playoffs is worth tens of millions of euros (dollars) as UEFA will share 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) among the 32 group-stage clubs this season.

Italy has a dire recent record in playoffs. Serie A sends its third-placed team to the final qualifying stage and only AC Milan in 2014 has advanced in the past six seasons.

Changing the Champions League format is possible only every three years. It must be agreed before UEFA’s retained marketing agency can sell Champions League and Europa League rights to broadcasters and sponsors for the next cycle.

The debate this year has been intense with clubs seeming to take advantage of a UEFA leadership gap since outgoing president Michel Platini was suspended by FIFA last year.

It should be resolved ahead of a Champions League draw missing recent winners Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan and Inter Milan. They all failed to qualify, but would expect to join an American-style closed European league where the likes of surprise English champion Leicester would not automatically appeal to most broadcasters.

Options favorable to the most influential clubs included more entries for the top leagues, bigger shares of the prize fund, protected places for storied clubs with a global fan base, and playing matches on Saturdays rather than midweek to appeal to Asian and American audiences. Outside Europe, viewers are judged to want more games between high-profile teams.

The deal now reportedly on UEFA’s table gives clubs some concessions, while keeping Platini’s vision for the world’s most prestigious club competition.

Platini, who played in the 1980s-era European Cup when only national champions were in a pure knockout bracket, had worked to protect entries for more teams from middle-ranking countries.

This season, Bruges, Basel and Besiktas – title winners in Belgium, Switzerland and Turkey – are among 22 teams with direct group-stage entry. It is unclear how those places could be squeezed if the big-four leagues get 16 guaranteed slots instead of 11 at present.

Basel president Bernhard Heusler declined to comment to The AP ahead of attending Thursday’s meeting of the UEFA club competitions committee.

UEFA acknowledged the next format is being agreed sooner than expected. A deadline of December’s meeting of the UEFA executive committee was set after tense meetings in Milan on May 28, ahead of the Champions League final.

The new timetable should see the tournament’s immediate future settled before the UEFA presidential vote on Sept. 14 to replace Platini.

The election front-runner, Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, has won public support from countries like Denmark and Sweden, whose title-holders regularly qualify for Champions League groups but are not seen as commercially attractive.

Some club leaders, including Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, say the Champions League is undervalued despite UEFA raising 2.24 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in annual commercial revenue for the Champions League and Europa League combined in the 2015-2018 cycle.

That gives a 12 million euro ($13.6 million) basic fee to each team in the Champions League groups. The top earner can get around 100 million euros ($113 million) from UEFA when results bonuses and TV rights shares are added.

Still, that is barely more than the English Premier League pays its last-place team from TV money, and the top European clubs want a bigger share of Champions League money from the next deal.

That deal could be struck, fittingly, on Thursday in a five-star hotel in Monte Carlo.

FOLLOW LIVE: Manchester City, Celtic, Roma aim for group stage

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, foreground, controls the ball away from Stoke City's Philipp Wollscheid, during the English Premier League soccer match between Stoke City and Manchester City, at The Bet365 Stadium, in Stoke-on-Trent, England,  Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (Nick Potts/PA via AP)
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Plenty of ties remain in the air as the UEFA Champions League playoff round winds up Tuesday and Wednesday.

One of those is not Manchester City vs. Romanian side Steaua Bucharest. City brings five road goals back to the Etihad Stadium, and is likely more concerned with Wednesday’s group stage draw.

[ MORE: U.S. teen headed to La Liga ]

Celtic is fairly comfortable as well, having put up a 5-2 score line at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in Scotland ahead of today’s match in Israel.

Notably, only two of these four clubs will advance to the group stage despite their status as competition regulars: Porto, Roma, Villarreal and Monaco.

Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League slateFOLLOW LIVE
Hapoel Be’er Sheva (2) vs. (5) Celtic
Legia Warsaw (2) vs. (0) Dundalk
Viktoria Plzen (0) vs. (2) Ludogorets Razgrad
Monaco (2) vs. (1) Villarreal
Roma (1) vs. (1) Porto
Manchester City (5) vs. (0) Steaua Bucharest

FOLLOW LIVE: 13 Premier League teams enter the EFL Cup

WATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring their winning goal during the Premier League match between Watford and Chelsea at Vicarage Road on August 20, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Everton, Chelsea, and Liverpool all begin their EFL Cup runs on Tuesday, as 13 Premier League clubs enter the fray of the competition formerly known as the League Cup.

[ MORE: U.S. teen headed to La Liga ]

Newcastle United, linked with an imminent arrival of USMNT back DeAndre Yedlin, will play Cheltenham Town, while fellow relegated side Norwich City faces Coventry City.

Tuesday’s EFL Cup scheduleFOLLOW LIVE

Crystal Palace vs. Blackpool
Blackburn Rovers vs. Crewe Alexandra
Burton Albion vs. Liverpool
Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers
Derby County vs. Carlisle United
Everton vs. Yeovil Town
Exeter City vs. Hull City
Luton Town vs. Leeds United
Millwall vs. Nottingham Forest
Newcastle United vs. Cheltenham Town
Northampton Town vs. West Bromwich Albion
Norwich City vs. Coventry City
Oxford United vs. Brighton & Hove Albion
Peterborough United vs. Swansea City
Preston North End vs. Oldham Athletic
Queens Park Rangers vs. Rochdale
Scunthorpe United vs. Bristol City
Stevenage vs. Stoke City
Watford vs. Gillingham
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Cambridge United
Reading vs. MK Dons

Wednesday

Accrington Stanley vs. Burnley
Fulham vs. Middlesbrough
Morecambe vs. Bournemouth
Sunderland vs. Shrewsbury Town