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 ]
[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

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.

Chivas Guadalajara wins 12th Liga MX title

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A nail-biting finish saw Chivas Guadalajara lift the 2016/17 Liga MX title, beating Apertura champions Tigres to earn the club’s 12th Liga MX title.

The title makes Guadalajara the joint-most successful club in Mexican top flight history, even with Club America on titles.

With the aggregate score at 2-2 coming into the second leg at Chivas Stadium, the home side took the lead on an 18th minute expert finish by former Tigres youth product Alan Pulido. Oswaldo Alanís delivered a brilliant deep, looping ball to the far post, and under one-on-one pressure with a defender, Pulido struck it first-time and buried the ball into the far corner.

The game waited until midway through the second half for the next strike, as the eventual winner would fall to Jose Vazquez. The 29-year-old charged down a bounding ball that Tigres failed to clear, and his effort on net took a sizeable deflection off the midsection of a visiting defender, leaving the ball to trickle in uncontested.

Despite a 4-2 aggregate lead, it was by no means comfortable down the stretch for Chivas. Tigres pulled one back in the 88th minute on a fabulous strike by Ismael Sosa from just outside the top of the box. The visitors pressed for a stunning late equalizer, but it wasn’t to be.

The title is sweet for Chivas, who has endured a decade of struggles since winning its last championship, even coming close to relegation at times. In addition, the starting lineup for the second leg was fully domestic from top to bottom, with all 11 players from Mexico. On that same note, Pulido outdueled expensive Tigres striker Andre-Pierre Gignac, putting in on of the most impressive shifts of the match.

MLS Snapshot: FC Dallas 0-0 Houston Dynamo

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The game in 100 words (or less): The goalkeepers starred as the first Texas derby of the season ended goalless in Frisco, leaving both teams winless for at least three matches. A relatively slow start to the match gave way to an electric pace before halftime, as both goalkeepers made incredible saves, and FC Dallas had a goal correctly ruled out for offside. The second half saw two more fantastic stops, and each team had little else to offer the game.

Three moments that mattered

27′ – A pair of incredible saves, one on each end. In a game that had slogged through the opening half-hour and just seen FC Dallas defender Walker Zimmerman off injured, the match sprung to life. First, Kellyn Acosta delivered a beautiful free-kick from just off-center to the right. Tyler Deric was there, acrobatically reaching the top-right corner with his fingertips to deny the USMNT youngster. The save was so good, Acosta appeared to be prematurely celebrating a goal before he was forced to pull up after seeing the stop.

Then, immediately down the other end, Alberth Elis charged down a loose ball and ripped a shot on net, but Jesse Gonzalez produced an equally stunning save to keep the game scoreless.

66′ – FC Dallas dominated the opening stages of the second half, but they’d need their goalkeeper again to keep the score level. Alex delivered a dangerous cross from the left flank, and while it went over the head of Cubo Torres, it fell to Mauro Manoutas sliding in at the back post who met it on the slide. Unfortunately for Houston, Gonzalez was in the right place to make an admittedly awkward save.

80′ – In a 0-0 game, with no goals to speak of, the loudest cheer of the night was for Mauro Diaz. The 26-year-old made his return from an Achillies tear, subbing on with 10 minutes remaining for the first time since early August. He received a standing ovation from the FC Dallas home crowd.

Honorable mention – Kellyn Acosta delivered this eye-popping through-ball just before halftime. Feast your eyes.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jesse Gonzalez

Goalscorers: None

Championship Playoff Final preview: Huddersfield Town vs. Reading

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These two teams weren’t supposed to be here, at Wembley on Monday at 10:00 a.m. ET playing for a spot in the Premier League.

Everyone talked about how beautiful Fulham played. Everyone talked about how Sheffield kept on winning. Everyone kept talking about the favorites. Everyone wrote off the other guys.

Yet here we are. Reading, owner of a +4 goal differential. Huddersfield Town, owner of a -2 goal differential. Reading, winners over Fulham thanks to a bogus handball. Huddersfield, on to Wembley after a penalty shootout in the rain.

Here we are. The game that will catapult one team to the riches of the Premier League, the game that will send another team back to the depths of the Championship, consigned to progress with the heartbreak of knowing they were so close.

[ MORE: USMNT roster announced for upcoming World Cup qualifiers ]

The Championship playoff final is one of the biggest enigmas in the European soccer landscape. Teams like Reading looking to return to familiar lands of plentiful bounty, others like Huddersfield looking for glory never experienced before.

Huddersfield has not seen top flight action since 1972, and former American international David Wagner has them on the precipice. “There were a lot of statements before the semi-finals about momentum and about form,” Wagner said. “It is another example where we have proven that experience and what has happened in the past is irrelevant. After the 120 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday there were a lot of tired legs, but now after a training camp in Portugal and training on the grass here, everybody is ready to go.”

As far as form goes, Town is struggling. They drew both legs of the Sheffield Wednesday playoff semifinal 0-0, and finished the regular season on a three-match losing streak. They haven’t won a match since April 14th.

Reading, meanwhile, finished the year with wins in seven of their final nine regular season games, and they downed an attacking Fulham side 1-0 at home in the second leg of their semifinal. They’ve been stellar at winning close games all year, winning 18 regular season games by just a single goal, and losing just four, with seven draws. If Jaap Stam can lead his side back to the Premier League, it would mark just a four-year turnaround from their previous relegation from the top flight.

Riches await the winner. The sides couldn’t be more different, and yet on Monday, they both face the same brick wall.

Epic fake injury mars Hungarian league title match

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Sometimes it works out perfectly. Two teams, a title on the line, one match to decide it.

The top two teams in the Hungarian top flight, also known as the NB I, were set to play each other on the final day of the season to decide the title winner.

Budapest Honved hosted Videoton, with the winner set to win the league title. A draw would have given Videoton the victory on goal differential.

With the match 0-0 at halftime, it progressed tensely through the second half. So tense, in fact, that the teams felt they needed to do everything in their power to earn an edge. Even fake injuries. Terribly.

34-year-old Videoton striker Danko Lazovic, a veteran who has been around Europe with Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, and a host of Eredivisie teams,  looked to earn a foul in the attacking half. He put so much effort into selling the foul that, well, he went a little overboard. And by a little overboard, we mean he went berserk on the field, rolling around and flailing on his back.

There are many factors that make this an absolutely epic moment. First, his team had already earned a foul without the dive. The referee had blown the whistle for a shove moments before Lazovic went down. Second, his teammate looks to come over and help him sell the foul a little more realistically, and instead of accept his teammate’s assistance, he shrugs off the help and continues to flail. Third, as karma would have it, Honved would score the title-winning goal six minutes later as they would go on to win 1-0.

Kids, don’t try this at home. It’s not a good look.