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Arena: USMNT ‘behind the eight ball’ in World Cup qualifying

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NEW YORK (AP) Bruce Arena opened a binder to a page with 48 names, his depth chart for the U.S. soccer team.

Back in charge for the first time in a decade, he views the Americans’ state as urgent following losses in the first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying and already has plans.

“We’re fighting for our lives starting March 24. We’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “We’ve got to close the gap, and we get six points in the next two games, the gap is closed.”

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During an hourlong session with reporters Tuesday, Arena said comments he made in 2013 about foreign-born players on the national team were aimed at the U.S. player development system, not a criticism of German-Americans who made up almost a quarter of the 2014 World Cup roster under Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I was told today, somebody, they referenced me in Spain as the Donald Trump of soccer,” Arena said. “I think that I’m at fault obviously for those statements, but I would like to clear that up. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s no way in the way I think.”

“I think the phrase foreign nationals is a very poor term, whoever uses it, and I will not use it. I will not use dual citizens. They’re national team players,” he explained. “The comment regarding foreign-born players, at the time I believe was referencing player development. And I was simply saying that if our senior national team program consists of a large minority of players, large majority of players that were born elsewhere, where are we going with our development? It has nothing to do with who should be playing on the national team, who should not.”

Now 65 and a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, Arena coached the U.S. from 1998-2006 and is the winningest coach in team history. He led the Americans to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, their best finish since the first tournament in 1930, then was fired after a first-round elimination in 2006. He took over from Klinsmann last week following a 2-1 home loss to Mexico and a 4-0 rout at Costa Rica.

“Mexico certainly came out and took control of the game early, and I don’t think that should happen at home,” Arena said. “I think the game in Costa Rica was not good from start to finish. In general, I think the theme in both games: Our back line played poorly, and I don’t think they’re poor players. I think they can play better, so we’ve got to get them organized, get the right players in the right spots and get them playing better as a unit.”

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Arena plans to open training camp in Carson, California, around Jan. 8 and follow with a pair of exhibitions with a roster mostly from Major League Soccer. Qualifying resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras, followed four days later by a match at Panama.

Feilhaber (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Arena says goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan need competition from the rest of the player pool, 31-year-old midfielder Benny Feilhaber likely will get an opportunity to return after playing just three games under Klinsmann and 35-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jones “certainly still has something to offer.”

He views captain Michael Bradley as a defensive midfielder rather than a playmaker, a role Klinsmann encouraged Bradley to assume.

“He plays an important position and at his best he’s a key figure, and we’ve got to get him at his best,” Arena said.

Settling on the center of the field is one of Arena’s keys.

“We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field that can deliver the right ball at the right time,” he said. “Who that is remains to be seen. There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that that we’ll look at in camp in January, and that to me is an area that we’ve got to identify. And that will help establish how we play. Do we play with one striker, two strikers? Do we play with three? How do we define our midfield shape based on that.”

Arena’s office at the StubHub Center moves only about 30 feet from his previous job as coach of the LA Galaxy, and his parking spot remains the same. As he takes over, he wants to change the Americans’ mentality and consistency.

“Too many peaks and valleys,” he said, moving his hands up and down. “We’ve got to get them to level out their performance a little bit more.”

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A former German star player and coach, Klinsmann criticized the level of play in Major League Soccer. Arena said it has come a long way.

“MLS isn’t on the level of the EPL or the Bundesliga or La Liga, Serie A. We know that,” he said. “But right after that, we’re in that area below that, and it will get better.”

Arena doesn’t tweet and isn’t that interested in statistics.

“I’m not a person that digs deep into analytics because I don’t think the sport of soccer is an analytic sport,” he said. “I think baseball clearly is. I think football can be, obviously, basketball a little bit more. I think soccer is a hard one.”

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

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The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.