Pre-game focus: Three areas to watch when U.S. faces Portugal

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Ghana’s draw against Germany has given the United States a chance to move first in Group G, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and a desperate Portugal next in line, qualifying for the next round is far from certain. The U.S. needs two points over its next two games to clinch a spot in the final 16, though in the eyes of some, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team will be underdogs against both the Seleccao and the attack-heavy Germans.

But to the extent there is a talent gap between the U.S. and Portugal, a slew of absences that will help. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio, left back Fabio Coentrão, and forward Hugo Almeida are all injured, while central defender Pepe will be suspended after drawing a red card in game one. As questions about Ronaldo’s left knee persist, it’s unclear how strong FIFA’s fourth-ranked team will be at kickoff.

That leaves the U.S. with a chance to make history. The team’s never won two group stage games, let alone their first two, but if the team can summon the spirit of 2002 to help send another Portuguese team home, they’ll make history 180 minutes into their 2014 World Cup.

[ POSNANSKI: Confidence and the unconventional Klinsmann ]

Here are three areas of focus ahead of tomorrow’s 6:00 p.m. Eastern kickoff:

source: Getty Images1. Where moving Fabian Johnson could pay off – Johnson’s switch from the left side to right back late in club season is paying off for the U.S., though given Klinsmann’s liberal view of positions, the Germany-born wide man could have ended up at the position, regardless. Drawn into a group where the likes of Ronaldo and German Marco Reus posed game-deciding threats, Klinsmann may have prioritized his previously ailing right back position, and while Reus’s injury means Johnson will face a slightly less dynamic foe on Thursday, the move should still pay off against Ronaldo.

Scour the U.S.’s player pool, and there’s no better player to lineup opposite the Real Madrid star than the 26-year-old Johnson. To the extent that anybody can challenge a player like Ronaldo, the Germany-born Johnson has the profile to do so, combining speed, strength, size, athleticism and experience. While that hasn’t produced perfect performances in his last four starts, it does provide the U.S. a surprisingly viable option against the Portuguese star. Not many squads have a player like Johnson.

Team defense will be more important. Denying Ronaldo the ball in dangerous spots and preventing him from having chances cutting in on his right foot will be key. And when Portugal build down their right, Ronaldo’s often going to be isolated one-on-one at the far post against Johnson. Denying good service will be crucial.

Still, the U.S. will be lucky to have a player like Fabian Johnson at right back, and while that doesn’t mean Ronaldo will be kept off the scoresheet, it does increase the chance that one of the team’s best athletes will lineup against Portugal’s biggest star. Five weeks after installing him at the position, Klinsmann may see his move pay off.

[ MORE: Germany’s formation sheds light on Klinsmann’s roots ]
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source: Getty Images2. Prioritizing what to prevent in the middle – It’s not that Portugal’s midfield’s particularly dangerous. In fact, if you go player-for-player, there are some encouraging similarities, from the U.S.’s point of view. Michael Bradley is the U.S.’s João Moutinho, Jermaine Jones (right) provides the same versatile, volatile presence that Raul Meireles brings to his side, while Kyle Beckerman and Miguel Veloso each provide protection for their defenses.

The obvious difference: The U.S. has one, sometimes two extra men in the middle, and while that means they’re sacrificing something up top, it also means Alejandro Bedoya (should his hip pointer allow him to start over Graham Zusi) and Clint Dempsey will help clog things up for Portugal. To the extent this game becomes a battle in the middle, the U.S. should control it.

Portugal, however, will likely play around that battle. With Ronaldo on one flank, Manchester United’s Nani on the other, the Seleccao won’t need to control the middle of the park to get the ball to its biggest threats. If the U.S. plays the narrow midfield we saw against Ghana, the space that allowed the Black Stars to attempt 35 crosses could translate into chances for Ronaldo and Nani to decide Sunday’s match.

That not necessarily the worst thing. Often you have to decide before the match how you’re willing to let your opponent beat you. Perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann will see Portugal’s wide play as the lesser of evils, knowing players like Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya will be able to provide help when Portugal’s danger men cut to the middle of the park.

If, however, the U.S. wants to provide more resistance on the flanks, its approach will have to change.

[ MORE: Conditions in Manaus won’t be new for the U.S. ]

source: Getty Images3. How will ‘not-Jozy’ do? – Jozy Altidore is the most scrutinized player in the U.S. squad, but if Klinsmann can’t figure out how to replace him, he may prove one of the team’s most indispensable, too. Ruled out with a left hamstring injury, the Sunderland striker will watch as Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski (right) or Dempsey try to replace him.

Unfortunately, none of those understudies will provide the same outlet at the top of the team’s formation. Even though he plays in the middle of an attacking three in the Netherlands, Johannsson’s lack of physicality leaves him ill-equipped to consistently win battles against defenders at this level. Physically, Wondolowski is a better option, but rarely utilized in that matter at club (or, to this point, international) level, it’s unclear how he’ll perform. Put Dempsey up top and you make your best attacker your focal point, but the team’s captain could also end up disappearing when an attacking midfield lacking his skills can’t connect with its forward.

Perhaps wondering how the U.S. can replace Altidore is too presumptuous. Maybe Klinsmann will have to embrace his squad’s new limitations. Instead of deploying a system that relies on a ball-winning striker, the U.S. may need offer support to whomever they start up top.

MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

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MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Bartra error emphasizes Dortmund’s latest Bundesliga woes

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Christian Pulisic sat out Friday’s 2-1 Dortmund defeat against Stuttgart. Coincidence? Perhaps.

However, the club’s struggles are apparent as Dortmund’s winless run extended to four matches and their gap from Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich could be up to nine points by the end of the weekend.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down from Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

BVB was without several of its top talents for the match, including U.S. Men’s National Team star Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s Dortmund’s defending that continues to be the side’s biggest issue.

Stuttgart struck after five minutes when Chadrac Akolo broke the deadlock off of an embarrassing blunder by Marc Bartra and the Dortmund defense.

Bartra attempted a routine back pass to goalkeeper Roman Burki during the early moments of the match, but his ball back proved to be way too strong and deflected off of Burki and into the path of Stuttgart forward Akolo (video below).

Dortmund atoned for the former Barcelona man’s mistake just prior to halftime when Maximilian Philipp equalized, but it took just six minutes into the second stanza for Josip Brekalo to restore the Stuttgart advantage.

Moyes: Chicharito could miss two weeks with hamstring strain

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David Moyes has given Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez assurances that he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a starting role with the Hammers, but the Mexican international will have to wait a bit for a chance.

[ MORE: North London Derby takes center stage Saturday morning ]

Hernandez, 29, is currently nursing a hamstring strain, leaving his status for this weekend against Watford in doubt.

“I think everyone knows he [Chicharito] has got a hamstring injury,” Moyes said during Friday’s press conference. “It could take a week, it could take two weeks.”

Moyes didn’t mince words recently when speaking about Chicharito and other players within the squad, essentially pointing out that no player will be awarded a starting role simply because of their stardom.

Hernandez has scored four goals in 13 matches this season for West Ham, who currently sits 18th in the Premier League. The Hammers have won just two matches to start the 2017/18 campaign and sit on nine points.

Alessandro Nesta steps down with NASL side Miami FC

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Miami FC quickly put itself on the U.S. soccer map in two short seasons, and much of the club’s success can be attributed to manager Alessandro Nesta.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down with Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

The former Serie A defender has managed the club in its first two years of existence, but Nesta’s time in South Beach is coming to an end.

Nesta revealed on Friday that he won’t be returning to the NASL club in 2018, as he prepares to fnd a “new challenge” in his managerial career.

With NASL’s future as a league very much up in the air, Nesta could be seeking a more stable position entering 2018, especially given that his name has been thrown around with several MLS jobs over the last few months.