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.

STREAM: CONCACAF tripleheader concludes with USMNT

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CONCACAF’s bottom three sides in the Hex standings look to make the table incredibly tight as World Cup qualifying finds three-straight matches on the docket beginning at 5 p.m. EDT.

Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Los Catrachos were creamed 6-0 by the U.S. on Friday, and return home hoping a wounded Costa Rica remains vulnerable. Honduras is dead last on goal differential, but three points would be huge and put them level with Los Ticos. Costa Rica won its first two matches before falling to Mexico on Friday.

Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico

El Tri has two wins and a draw from their first three Hex matches, and will be without Rafa Marquez on Tuesday. A win guarantees Mexico the top spot heading into the next round of matches in June. The Soca Warriors surprised some with their 1-0 win over visiting Panama on Tuesday. Mexico is a different class.

Panama vs. USMNT

Despite its miserable start, the U.S. can find itself as high as second with a win and help from Honduras. The injuries remain plenty for the Yanks, who are without Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood, Sebastian Lletget, and John Brooks. Panama has allowed just a single goal through three Hex matches, but also has only managed one.

AFC and Oceania wrap: Iran, New Zealand take next steps

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With CONMEBOL and CONCACAF serving as the main course later Tuesday, the morning and afternoon saw big World Cup qualifiers on the other side of the world.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

Asian qualifying

Iran is on the verge of qualification for Russia 2018 after Persepolis star Mehdi Taremi bagged his ninth international goal in a 1-0 home win over China.

Iran leads Group A by four points, but second-place South Korea and third-place Uzbekistan kept pace with 1-0 home wins of their own. Hong Jeong-ho scored in South Korea’s win over Syria, while Odil Ahmendov’s 65th minute free kick was enough to push Uzbekistan past Qatar.

The goalkeeping was… less than ideal.

Over in Group B, shutouts were the name of the game for high-powered hosts as well.

Japan stayed atop the group with a 4-0 win over Thailand, as a trio of players with Premier League experience — Maya Yoshida, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki — joined Gent’s Yuya Kubo on the scoreboard.

Saudi Arabia is level with Japan on points thanks to Yahya Al-Shehri’s post-halftime goal in a 1-0 win over Iraq, while Australia saw off United Arab Emirates thanks to goals from Burton Albion’s Jackson Irvine and Ingolstadt’s Mathew Leckie.

That leaves Australia three points behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in the race for two of three automatic spots. The Socceroos hosts the Green Falcons in June before an August trip to Saitama in a pair of matches which will decide who goes directly to Russia and who has to win a pair of playoffs: One against the Group A’s third-place team and another against CONCACAF’s fourth place side.

Oceania qualifying

New Zealand took the next step in collecting Oceania’s berth in the intercontinental playoff with a 2-0 win over Fiji in Wellington. PEC Zwolle winger Ryan Thomas bagged a brace for the All Whites.

New Zealand will next face either Tahiti, Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea over two legs in late August and early September for the right to battle the fifth place CONMEBOL team for a World Cup berth. That could be Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, or even Colombia.

Tahiti hosts Papua New Guinea at 1 a.m. EDT Wednesday, and will be the odds-on favorite to face New Zealand with a win.

After further tests, Lletget to miss 4-6 months

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So much for initial reports.

Less than 24 hours after the LA Galaxy announced that Sebastian Lletget had come through his injury on USMNT duty with no structural damage, a specialist found something worse.

Lletget has a Lisfranc injury and requires surgery, meaning the Galaxy and the U.S. will be without the midfielder for four to six months.

[ MORE: Spurs eager for U.S. return ]

Lletget, 24, spent a half-decade with West Ham but couldn’t break into the squad before returning to the U.S. last summer. He became a mainstay for the Galaxy, earning a call-up to the national team.

He scored his first USMNT goal on Friday to open the World Cup qualifier against Honduras, but was injured after a hard sliding tackle from Ever Alvarado.

Galaxy has depth beyond Lletget and Jermaine Jones, with Rafael Garcia, Joao Pedro, and Baggio Husidic able to fill a similar role, but this one stings for the Galaxy. Get well, Sebastian.

Scouting report: Everton target Orlando’s Cyle Larin

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Reports have been suggesting the Orlando City’s star striker Cyle Larin is attracting some serious interest from Premier League side Everton.

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Larin, 21, has started the MLS season off in red-hot form and the report suggests the Toffees have bid $4 million for his talents. They’ll likely have to up that offer for the Canadian national team star.

What is Larin all about?

With Romelu Lukaku seeming to be heading towards the exit door this summer as his contract saga rumbles on, it’s not outlandish to state that Larin has a very similar style to the prolific Belgian international. Of course, he has yet to test himself in the PL and Lukaku’s boots would be a big pair to fill if Larin did arrive at Goodison Park as some kind of replacement in the coming months, yet when you watch Larin play there are so many similarities between the pair.

Ronald Koeman is always eager to give youth a chance and with Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all getting regular minutes this season, so Larin would get chances to impress if he ended up on Merseyside.

Here are some key stats Toffees fans will want to know too:

  • 17 – Number of goals Larin scored in his debut MLS season, the most-ever by a Rookie
  • Larin has scored all three of Orlando’s goals so far in the 2017 MLS season
  • He has scored 39 goals in 68 appearances for Orlando since arriving in 2015
  • For Canada, he has five goals in 19 appearances after making his debut as a teenager
  • Larin became the first-ever Canadian to be selected as the first overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft when he joined Orlando in 2015

Click play on the video above to see Larin’s best moments so far in MLS, as he continues his impressive development.