Preview: Early cycle friendly shelves normal questions for U.S. national team’s return

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Nearly four years away from the next World Cup, it’s difficult to approach tomorrow’s U.S. Men’s National Team friendly with our usual level of scrutiny. Who’s fighting for starting spots? Which players need a big camp? What will this tell us about the U.S.’s place in the world? We’re clearly not above those questions, but it’s important to remember: Four years from now, Wednesday’s game against the Czech Republic will be pretty irrelevant.

If there’s any time we should sit back and just enjoy a game, tomorrow’s that time. And given some of the names brought into camp, there’ll be plenty of reasons to look beyond the results, take in the return, and wait for the debates to evolve. From new kids to old kids, returning stars to impending battles, Wednesday’s showing against the Czech republic will seed more than a few discussions going forward.

Here’s what to look for tomorrow in Prague:

source: Getty Images1. New kids in Casa Klinsmann

Emerson Hyndman (right) has been drawing rave reviews. Like fellow 18-year-old Rubio Rubin, the Fulham midfielder is in his first senior camp, competing to make his full international debut. Add in goalkeeper Cody Cropper, fullback Greg Garza, and attackers Joe Gyau and Jordan Morris, and there are six players hoping to win their first cap – the kind of squad you rarely see later in the cycle.

Add in Bobby Wood and Alfredo Morales (one cap, each) and you have a series of players looking to make new impressions on Jurgen Klinsmann. If history is any indication, only a few of them will play significant parts by the end of the cycle. But for those few, tomorrow’s match starts a new journey, one that will allow fans to mark the day a new star broke through with the national team.

2. Old kids solidifying roles

In Brazil, talents like John Brooks, Julian Green, and (to a lesser extent) Mix Diskerud were part of youthful contingent gaining experience for better days. On Wednesday, those better days begin. Each player will be expected to make big contributions this cycle, going from backups’ roles to performers who can compete for starting jobs. By the time the U.S leaves for Russia 2018, each will be in their prime, representing the next generation of American talent.

source: APTomorrow’s unlikley to produce a major breakthrough, but with each appearance over the next four years, the underlying theme should be the same: Progress. As their games mature and older talents start to fade out, Brooks, Green (right), and Diskerud (among others) will have to form the team’s new core. Particularly with so many veterans left off this squad, Prague presents a great opportunity to flash that potential.

3. Fabian and Jozy, back on the field

Fabian Johnson was one of the U.S.’s best players at this summer’s World Cup, but like Jozy Altidore, his tournament ended too soon. Muscle injuries meant both players were on the sidelines by the time Belgium sent the U.S. home, with Altidore’s tournament ending after 20 minutes against Ghana.

Altidore’s drawn plenty of criticism for his play at Sunderland, but for the U.S., he’s a special talent. Only 24 and already sixth on the team’s all-time goal scoring list, Altidore has the poise to function as a focal point, something that will come in handy with Clint Dempsey back in Seattle. His 23 international goals are more than the rest of the camp’s players combined, with his 71 caps more than doubling the squad’s next-highest total (Alejandro Bedoya, 32). Still only 24, Altidore has long been a fixture in the squad, with his track record for the U.S. rendering proving club form need not dictate international results.

Fabian Johnson doesn’t have the wealth of international experience, but after proving himself indispensable over three years with the team, the Borussia Mönchengladbach man has established himself as one of the most talented widemen in U.S. history. Without a long record of hype and adulation, Johnson’s place in fans’ hearts may not be as dear as the team’s long-time talents, but the 26-year-old is still among the best players in Klinsmann’s pool. There’s a reason he’s playing at a club level few American talents can realize.

On Wednesday, both players will be back on the field, supplying some first-team talent to a somewhat experimental squad.

4. And that goalkeeper battle

The extent to which this is an actual competition is debatable, but with Nick Rimando the only player pulled in from MLS, there’s reason to think there’s a battle for Tim Howard’s vacated spot. Brad Guzan may not be gifted the number one’s job. With each player scheduled to play 45 minutes in Prague, there may yet be a fight for time in goal.

Then again, like everything else surrounding Wednesday’s game, it may be best to sit back and enjoy rather than draw firm conclusions. Who knows what’s going on inside Jurgen Klinsmann’s head? With Howard out of the picture, Guzan maybe the assumed number one, but too many times Klinsmann’s shown what happens when we assume. Rimando may have been called in for lack of other options. He may also be given a fresh look as a potential starter.

Competition aside, Wednesday gives the two U.S. veterans some much deserved playing time – minutes they’re starved of when Howard’s in the fold. It will be nice to see each on the field.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.