Stat attack: Klinsmann benched Beckerman against Belgium for a reason, and it backfired

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A massive thanks to FourFourTwo’s amazing stat app StatsZone for the dashboards in this article.

Jurgen Klinsmann had a pretty clear game plan going into the game with Belgium.

His megaphone was the lineup card, and the message was “Your creativity won’t beat us through the middle.”

By starting Geoff Cameron as midfield cover instead of Kyle Beckerman, Klinsmann surprised many around the country, but it’s not hard to figure out why he did it.

One name quite literally rises above all others in the Belgian midfield: Marouane Fellaini.

With the aerial presence of the Belgian afro roaming the pitch, Klinsmann made a very significant change to the lineup in an attempt to box in the big Manchester United midfielder and keep him at bay.

Beckerman isn’t very good in the air, and this is made abundantly clear in the first few USA matches.  Throughout their first three World Cup games, Beckerman had a total of one headed clearance and was 1/2 in aerial duels. It’s not that he failed miserably at it, but he’s flat out not a jumper, much preferring to have his feet on the ground. To compare, Cameron by far out-jumped Beckerman’s entire tournament against Belgium alone, with five headed clearances and 4/5 in aerial duels.

Knowing the threat Fellaini – and even Axel Witsel, to an extent – poses in the air, Klinsmann chose instead to slot Geoff Cameron into defensive midfield. Essentially a third central defender who has ability on the ball, Cameron was a valid choice to not only lock down Fellaini but also relieve Michael Bradley up front somewhat in the creativity department.

Except, with the added aerial coverage came a massive drop-off in distributive ability, and that was a lethal omission in the US midfield. More on that in a bit.

First, let’s first overview how Cameron’s presence actually worked quite well in both holding Fellaini down in the air and clogging the passing lanes in the middle.

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As you can see, there’s a  nice gap in front of the 18-yard box where Cameron patrolled. Fellaini only received five passes in that area all match (the red circle) a positive for the United States.

Witsel had more service in that area, but the US were still successful in scattering him around the pitch, something Russia failed to do during their group-stage match.  As a result, against Russia, Witsel completed all 34 passes he attempted and was an engine against that stout Russian back line.  Against the US, he made a few mistakes in the midfield and overall had less of an influence.

Also interesting, against Russia Fellaini was a favorite target of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on goal kicks, with the midfielder able to get to the long balls at will.  Courtois hooked up with Fellaini eight times in that match, a staggering amount and major part of his service. Against the United States with Cameron often man-marking Fellaini, he latched onto just twice.

The presence of Cameron did a good job of spreading out the Belgian players, as you can see here on the player influence chart (essentially an overlay of each player’s heatmap).  Against Russia, the Belgian midfielders were clogging the middle and producing centrally, whereas against the United States they themselves were forced spread out, thus decreasing their ability to penetrate.

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In addition, Cameron beat Fellaini one-on-one in the air in two of their three recorded midfield duels, which was a positive considering that was the main purpose for his inclusion.

So in this way, Geoff Cameron’s presence was a positive. But there was a downside that proved deadly to the United States.

Without Beckerman’s superior distribution skills, Cameron and others made countless mistakes in the midfield and gave away precious possession much too often.

The most surprising number to come out of this match is the possession split.  Through regulation, the US maintained a 50-50 split of possession with Belgium, despite their ability to pepper Tim Howard’s goal compared to precious few opportunities for the Americans.  That surprising amount of possession for the US mostly came while attempting to build from the back, which often led to giveaways in the midfield.

A look at Cameron’s passing chart compared with Beckerman’s control of build-up play against Portugal and it’s easy to see how much the Real Salt Lake man was missed.

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While Beckerman’s passing doesn’t appear to be all that creative on the chart, there’s one thing that stands out: it’s mistake-free. Pair that with the 42-of-45 performance he put out against Germany, and it’s clear why the US failed to maintain possession against Belgium without him.

66-of-81 is below what the US would like from that position, and you can see countless giveaways in the middle third.

Not only that, but Cameron is scattered across the pitch as he looked to roam further up field. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering it allows Michael Bradley – playing out of position farther forward than he is used to – to ease back a bit and cover.

Unfortunately, none of that worked. Cameron didn’t have a single chance created despite relatively positive passing in the final third, and Bradley’s defensive presence was non-existent (0 clearances, 0 interceptions, 2/5 tackling).

This is somewhat harsh on Cameron. Jermaine Jones had a very poor passing performance with plenty of giveaways in the midfield as well, and Graham Zusi was a mess down the right.  But things seemed like they were missing an anchor, and that’s because it was on the bench.

The result of all these giveaways? 39 shots by Belgium, 18 of them on target. Tim Howard got to a record 16 of them, but the onslaught was too much.

Its nearly impossible to fully blame Klinsmann for this outcome; hindsight is 20/20, and his priority on aerial coverage over that of a conservative passing approach is something many would prefer. But in this case, after the match, we see the decision was incorrect.

Baroni fired by Serie A basement club Benevento

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BENEVENTO, Italy (AP) Benevento fired Marco Baroni and named Roberto De Zerbi its new coach after becoming the first squad in Serie A history to lose its first nine matches of the season.

The southern Italian club is the only team in Europe’s five major leagues without a point.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins Best Male Player at FIFA awards ]

Benevento also announced it fired sporting director Salvatore Di Somma.

The moves on Monday came a day after a 3-0 home loss to Fiorentina.

The Gazzetta dello Sport reports that Benevento will have to pay Baroni 800,000 euros (nearly $1 million) as part of an anti-firing clause in his contract.

Baroni guided Benevento up from Serie B last season.

De Zerbi last coached Palermo nearly a year ago before being fired by the Sicilian club.

It’s the second coaching change in Serie A this season, after Diego Lopez replaced Massimo Rastelli at Cagliari last week.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Atlanta hosts Crew, Whitecaps take on Earthquakes

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34 rounds of MLS action are in the books, and now the real fun is set to begin this week.

The MLS Cup Playoffs have arrived, and 12 teams are firmly in the running to hoist a trophy in December.

[ MORE: PST talks to Justin Meram ahead of the Crew’s playoff run ]

While Toronto FC, New York City FC, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers will each have the opportunity to watch the first round from their homes, the action all starts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Here’s a look at what to expect when the knockout round begins.

Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls — Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Fire were one of the most intriguing stories for much of the regular season, but Veljko Paunovic’s side enters the postseason limping. Lucky for them, the Red Bulls have been just as inconsistent throughout the course of 2017 — which already saw Jesse Marsch’s club lose in the U.S. Open Cup final.

Paunovic and Co. have lost eight of their last 15 matches, which doesn’t bode well entering the home stretch of the schedule. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls have won just two of their last 10 matches. The Harrison side should be well-rested though for Wednesday’s encounter after starting a mostly second-tier squad in Sunday’s season finale against D.C. United.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes — Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Whitecaps looked to be a sure-fire club destined for a bye in the first round, but things didn’t fall their way on Decision Day. Now, Carl Robinson’s side faces an Earthquakes side that is simply unpredictable.

The Quakes have the second-worst road record in the Western Conference when it comes to acquiring points — holding eight in points 17 matches. However, Chris Leitch has instilled a new-found belief amongst the squad that gives the California side a puncher’s chance.

Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew — Thursday, 7 p.m. ET

These two sides haven’t met since July 1, so all bets are off about these teams knowing one another. Since that point, Atlanta and Columbus have been two of the hottest sides in MLS and the former moved into a new stadium — which has given opposing sides quite the difficult time.

In their last 10 matches combined, the clubs boast just one loss, which Atlanta suffered at home against Minnesota United. There’s no reason not to expect a great one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET

Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side enters the playoffs winless in their last five, while their counterparts are unbeaten in six. The MLS postseason is often about which team is in the best form at the right particular moment, and right now, it doesn’t look like Sporting KC has luck on their side.

It’s also hard to not pay attention to the fact that the Dynamo have lost just once at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2017, which came on September 9 against the Colorado Rapids.

Carabao Cup preview: Man City hosts Wolves, Chelsea meets Everton

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All eyes will remain on the 11 Premier League sides left in this season’s Carabao Cup, but could a potential upset(s) shake the balance of power in the competition?

Norwich City and Leeds United will be among the teams seeking an upset in the tournament as they take on Arsenal and Leicester City, respectively, on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Cristiano Ronaldo captures Best Male Player at FIFA awards ]

Meanwhile, fresh off of Ronald Koeman‘s sacking, Everton must regroup quickly when they head to Stamford Bridge to take on Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea. The Toffees have taken just eight points in their first nine PL matches, leaving the Merseyside club in the relegation zone.

The Blues are aiming for their sixth League Cup title this season, while Manchester United could also achieve the same feat with the crown.

Here’s the slate of matches for the Carabao Cup Round of 16.

Tuesday (All fixtures kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET)

Swansea City vs. Manchester United
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough
Bristol City vs. Crystal Palace
Leicester City vs. Leeds United
Arsenal vs. Norwich City
Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wednesday (All fixtures kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET)

Chelsea vs. Everton
Tottenham Hotspur vs. West Ham United

Report: RBNY midfielder Felipe, NYCFC’s Harrison could play for USMNT

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The U.S. Men’s National Team has seen a rise in dual nationals representing the Stars and Stripes in recent years, and that trend could continue with two of MLS’ most promising midfielders interested in enhancing their international careers.

[ MORE: PST names Best XI for the 2017 MLS season ]

According to MSG Network’s Kristian Dyer, New York Red Bulls midfielder Felipe Martins is in the midst of a finalizing his American citizenship, while New York City FC attacker Jack Harrison has spoken with U.S. Soccer about potentially representing the U.S..

Martins already has his green card — which opened up an international slot for the Red Bulls this season –but obtaining citizenship in the near future would make him eligible for selection for the USMNT ahead of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle.

The 27-year-old had also previously applied for permanent residency in Canada back in 2013 while Martins was with the Montreal Impact, however, his aspirations to represent the nation never transpired.

Meanwhile, Harrison recently represented the England Under-21s in October, but he too could be on track for U.S. citizenship over the next few years if he remains in MLS.

[ MORE: Justin Meram talks Crew’s good form, facing Atlanta and more ]

In Dyer’s report, he notes the rising interest in Harrison from English clubs, though, and a potential move back to the United Kingdom would hurt the former Manchester United academy member’s chances of joining the USMNT.

Harrison is only in his sophomore season with NYCFC, but the young Englishman has garnered plenty of attention after scoring 14 goals and adding 13 assists thus far for the Bronx side.