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.

CCL wrap: FC Dallas disappoints; Club America struts (video)

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The CONCACAF Champions League returned Tuesday with Toronto FC’s 2-0 quarterfinal first leg win in Colorado, and a trio of ties began Wednesday across Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras.

[ WATCH: Fred’s vicious free kick ]

Tauro 1-0 FC Dallas

Veteran striker Edwin Aguilar scored a big goal, and goalkeeper Oscar McFarlane did plenty of good things as the Panamanian side struck a wild first blow against its MLS visitors.

Here’s a random fact underscoring how remarkable of a failure this would be for FC Dallas: Only six of Tauro’s roster members have their own Wikipedia page.

Deportivo Saprissa 1-5 Club America

Cecilio Dominguez and Mateus Uribe each bagged a brace, and Renato Ibarra also scored as the tournament’s top team sauntered into and out of Costa Rica on Wednesday. Club America has been to seven CCL finals, and one every single one.

Motagua vs. Club Tijuana — 10 a.m. ET

Honduran hosts hope to have a leg to stand on — pun intended — once the tie heads to Mexico.

West Ham to friendly neighbors Dag & Red: “Will help save our club”

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English Conference Premier side Dagenham and Redbridge has seen better days, and is getting a hand from a Premier League pal.

[ WATCH: Fred’s vicious free kick ]

West Ham United will pay a visit to Dag & Red as part of the latter’s #SaveTheDaggers campaign, and the March 21 date will cost fans between $7 and $21 to see a top flight side at 6,000-seat Victoria Road.

Dagenham and Redbridge chairman Paul Gwinn said, “It really will help save our club.”

“So please come on down to the Chigwell Construction Stadium for an additional night of football. Bring a friend, or two, or more and we can use the gate takings to help get us back on track,” reads a press release.

Dag & Red was founded in 1992 and climbed as high as League One in 2011, and plays just 2.5 miles from West Ham United’s training ground. Newcastle’s Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle are among Dag & Red alums in the Premier League.

It’s a terrific gesture from West Ham, and is even more impressive in the United States where the growing club game is increasingly cutthroat (especially between non-synced leagues).

Angry Di Francesco extremely quotable after Roma loss

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AS Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco absolutely roasted his charges after i Lupi tossed aside a Cenzig Under-inspired lead to fall 2-1 at Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Wednesday.

Di Francesco had praise for Edin Dzeko, who assisted Under’s goal, as well as goalkeeper Alisson, but was mostly enraged by his side.

[ MORE: Recap + Fred’s vicious free kick ]

Rather than construct a narrative, we’re going to point out our five favorite selections from Di Francesco’s post-match talk.

4) “The difference was that in the first half we tried to hurt them while in the second we were looking to hold on – to what? I don’t know.”

— “To what? I don’t know” is hilarious. Di Francesco’s side has posted some serious wins this season, including killing off Chelsea 3-0 at home and coming back from 2-0 to draw the Blues at Stamford Bridge. He doesn’t preach sitting back.

3) “There were far too many schoolboy errors – even by players with a wealth of international experience.”

— Schoolboy errors!

2) “I saw two completely different teams out there today. There were lots of players I should have taken off after we conceded the first goal.”

— Again, one mistake by a number of players on Facundo Ferreyra is enough for Di Francesco. He’s not just happy to be here.

1) “I can’t imagine we’d get arrogant just because we’re winning an important game. It’s not as if Roma are used to reaching the final every year.”

— When you’re willing to essentially rip an entire club’s history — Roma’s been to just two UCL quarterfinals since losing the final to Liverpool in 1984 — you’re putting your footprints in new cement.

Europa League preview: Rating every second leg

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Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund are one of many teams with their UEFA Europa League fates realistically in the balance come Thursday’s second legs of the Round of 32.

[ MORE: Sevilla 0-1 Man Utd | Mourinho reacts ]

Aside from a sextet of big teams posting blowouts, there’s still hope for the Round of 16 and a step closer to an automatic berth in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League.

Basically done

Atletico Madrid 4-1 Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET
Sporting Lisbon 3-1 Astana — 1 p.m. ET
Arsenal 3-0 Ostersund — 3:05 p.m. ET
Milan 3-0 Ludogorets Razgrad — 3:05 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Spartak Moscow — 3:05 p.m. ET
Braga 0-3 Marseille — 3:05 p.m. ET

In four of these cases, the heavy favorites emerged with multiple goal leads and at least three away goals.

Actually done

CSKA Moscow beat Red Star Belgrade 1-0 on Wednesday to win 1-0 on aggregate.

Unlikely, but big club lurks

RB Leipzig 3-1 Napoli — 1 p.m. ET
Villarreal 1-3 Lyon — 1 p.m. ET

In the case of Napoli, their 3-1 home loss to Leipzig was stunning but it’s impossible to rule out a club with such firepower. Villarreal trails by two to Lyon, but is home and dangerous.

Advantage one side, but anyone’s guess

Lokomotiv Moscow 3-2 Nice — 11 a.m. ET
Lazio 0-1 FCSB — 1 p.m. ET
Zenit Saint-Petersburg 0-1 Celtic — 1 p.m. ET
Red Bull Salzburg 2-2 Real Sociedad — 3:05 p.m. ET
Atalanta 2-3 Borussia Dortmund — 3:05 p.m. ET

Salzburg’s two away goals in a draw feels like a one-goal lead, and the one-goal matches are especially interesting. In the case of Atalanta, 1-0 to the Serie A side could undo Michy Batshuayi‘s first leg heroics for BVB.

Wide open

Plzen 1-1 Partizan Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET
Dynamo Kyiv 1-1 AEK Athens — 1 p.m. ET

Yes, nil-nil will get it done for the hosts, but there wasn’t a 0-0 in the entire group of first legs.