At halftime: Dempsey’s early opener has U.S. in front of Ghana — FOLLOW LIVE

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Story of the half: The fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history puts the U.S. in front, allowing them to play the first 45 minutes on their terms. Ghana goes 24 minutes without a shot and reach intermission drawing only one save from Tim Howard, leaving head coach Kwesi Appiah in search of second half solutions. Performing exactly as they would have draw it up, the U.S. takes a 1-0 win into halftime in Natal, Brazil.

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Goals:

1′ – That Ghana defense that was supposed to be so mistake-prone? Twenty-nine seconds in, bingo. After a throw-in along the left, Clint Dempsey’s given a chance to go one-on-one against John Boye. After cutting inside of the Ghanaian central defender, Dempsey’s left-footed finish finds the lower right-hand corner, giving the U.S. its earliest goal in World Cup history.

Other key moments:

19′ – As Ghana gets too narrow, Fabian Johnson gets forward on the right, where he’s fed a ball just outside the Ghana penalty area. Hesitating so he can assess the play, the U.S. right back plays a ball behind the Ghana line, allowing Jozy Altidore to turn on a shot from nine yards out. Only a block in front of Adam Kwarasey keeps the U.S. from doubling its lead.

21′ – Altidore’s hamstring goes. Chasing a long ball down the left from Michael Bradley, the U.S. number nine pulls up, grabs his left hamstring, and falls to the ground. There’s no doubt about it – he’s done. Twenty-one minutes into the tournament, Altidore’s World Cup may be done.

30′ – Surging forward from his defensive midfield position, Mohammed Raibu gets his elbow high during an aerial challenge at the edge of the U.S. penalty area. As Kyle Beckerman recovers on the ground, Jonas Eriksson goes to his pocket. The yellow card means Ghana’s midfield stopper will have to be careful.

32′ – Ghana generates its first good chance. Cutting from left-to-right across the top of the penalty area, Asamoah Gyan gets around Bradley to nail a shot toward Tim Howard’s lower-left corner. A diving stop sees the U.S. number one steer the shot wide.

33′ – The last thing the U.S. needs after seeing Altidore go down? An injury to its other starting forward, but when Jonathan Mensah’s left leg gets high during an aerial challenge, Dempsey’s left with a bloodied nose. After two minutes on the ground, Dempsey leaves to get treatment on the sidelines, alleviating concerns the U.S. would have to burn another sub.

45+5′ – Ghana finally gets another chance, but a ball played in from the right by Christian Atsu sees André Ayew scuff a shot from 12 yards out. Geoff Cameron easily clears moments before the halftime whistle.

Also of note: Toward the end of the half, Matt Belser was shown periodically grabbing his right hamstring, leaving the U.S. with another major injury concern.

Lineups:

Ghana: Kwarasey; Opare, Mensah, Boye, Asamoah; Rabiu, Atsu, Muntari, J. Ayew; Gyan, A. Ayew

United States: Howard, Johnson, Cameron, Besler, Beasley, Beckerman, Jones, Bradley, Bedoya, Dempsey, Altidore (Johannsson 23′)

Key players:

  • Aron Johannsson, United States – Ghana’s going to keep controlling possession, meaning the U.S. needs somebody to run down those Bradley long balls. That wasn’t supposed to be the 23-year-old, but in place of Altidore, Johannsson will have to step up.
  • DaMarcus Beasley, United States – Leaning to the right when attacking, Ghana has been intent on testing Beasley’s flank. So far, so good, partially because Appiah has opted for speed (Christian Atsu) against the 32-year-old American. That’s a game Beasley can play. If Appiah moves Jordan Ayew to the right, Beasley may have a more difficult challenge.
  • Asamoah Gyan, Ghana – The U.S. has managed to stay very compact through the middle, with Geoff Cameron and Besler creating a consistent two-on-one for Gyan. With Jermaine Jones and Beckerman helping Beasley on the left, there isn’t much to be had if the Ghanaian captain goes wide. Whether he gets help (from André Ayew, perhaps) or not, Gyan may have to overcome the odds to pull his team even.
  • Mohammed Rabiu, Ghana – More and more, the United States is playing on the counter, something that’s likely to continue in the second half. As the first line of defense against the U.S.’s transition, can the yellow-carded anchor make it to 90 minutes without having to put his team down a man?

Questions for the second half:

  • Does Ghana have another idea? It’s not only that the Black Stars were second best in everything but ball retention. They were never dangerous. With the U.S. scoring early, the Americans were able to leverage their set up and force Ghana to do something special. With Tim Howard doing such a good job deciding when to bolt off his line, Kwesi Appiah needs to implement Plan B at halftime.
  • Will fitness matter? It’s not the temperature, which is only 79 degrees (Fahrenheit). It’s the humidity: 74 percent. Which team is in better shape? Which one expends less energy performing its regular tasks? Which one will adjust to a final 10, 15 minutes that will leave them empty at the final whistle?

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United

Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the Year award

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LONDON (AP) Mohamed Salah has been voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in English football in recognition of an incredible scoring return to the Premier League with Liverpool.

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

The Egypt forward collected the Professional Footballers’ Association award at a ceremony in London on Sunday, two days before Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

It is a reunion with the Italian club he left in the offseason for 42 million euros (then $47 million). The hefty fee appeared to be a gamble for Liverpool but now represents a real bargain.

The former Chelsea player has scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool – enabling him to beat Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in second place to the PFA award.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane was third.

[ MORE: Man City thrash Swansea in pursuit of points record ]

“It’s a big honor,” Salah said. “I’ve worked hard and I’m very happy to win it.”

Salah is preparing to lead Egypt into its first World Cup in 28 years and he is the first player from the North African nation to win English football’s top individual prize.

“Hopefully I’m not the last one,” he said. “I’m very proud to win and I’ve worked very hard.”

Salah’s impact has been more remarkable given his underwhelming 2014-15 season at Chelsea before being offloaded by then-manager Jose Mourinho. He went on loan to Fiorentina in early 2015 and Roma in 2016, and then on a permanent basis to Roma in August 2016.

Scoring 15 goals and setting up 11 more for Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to a second spell in England.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw West Brom in final tune-up before UCL semis ]

His goal at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was his 31st in the league this season, tying the scoring record in a 38-game campaign held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.

Suarez was the last Liverpool player to be crowned player of the year by the PFA in 2014 before moving to Barcelona.

It’s a sign of his remarkable impact that Salah secured the award with third-place Liverpool and that none of Manchester City’s newly crowned champions won the accolade.

But City winger Leroy Sane was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

The PFA women’s player award went to Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, while Lauren Hemp of Bristol City secured the young player prize.

CONCACAF cancels women’s U-17 tournament due to violence

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) CONCACAF has canceled the rest of its 2018 Women’s Under-17 Championship following violence in Managua, Nicaragua, where the tournament began Thursday.

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football made the announcement Sunday. The tournament was to have determined the region’s qualifiers for the Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay, which starts Nov. 13.

More than two dozen people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead. Dozens of shops in Managua were looted during protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms.

The U.S. opened Friday with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica and had been scheduled to play Bermuda on Sunday and Canada on Tuesday.