USMNT: Three things to watch for — USA vs. Serbia

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With Bruce Arena set to make his (re-)debut as U.S. national team manager on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, versus Serbia), three things to keep an eye on as the USMNT gears up for the resumption of World Cup qualifying in March…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]


The shape (and members) of the midfield

Arena is generally quite flexible when it comes to formations and tactics, which is to say he typically alters his system to get as many of his best players on the field as he can at one time, within reason. When you look at the roster for these games, the most intriguing unit on the field is undoubtedly central midfielders, within the realm of wondering, “what’s Bruce going to do with the lineup?”

Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber are maestro passers which the USMNT has desperately needed in its bid to become a possession-based, front-foot attacking side. They were, of course, left ou tin the cold by the former manager for far too long, and that (among other things) was eventually a large part of his undoing. Now, they’re both in the team, and both deserving of a place in the starting lineup — with any luck at all, we might even see them play together. These days, Kljestan is the purer no. 10 of the two, while Feilhaber has proven himself for three seasons running as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in MLS — their roles seemingly reversed from early days of their careers.

While the temptation will always be there to play Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones together in the center of the park, we’ve 1) already seen that movie, and 2) know how that story ends. Bradley is unquestionably the more disciplined of the two, when instructed to sit in front of the backline, and his long-range passing dwarfs that of Jones, thus the most complete passing midfield in USMNT history could be realized over the next week, in games that count for nothing, which is precisely the time for such experiments.

[ MORE: Arena not panicking (yet) about USMNT’s place in WCQ ]


So, uh, who’s gonna play left back?

It’s a question that’s been asked for, well, basically an entire decade. Seven years ago, Carlos Bocanegra, a center back by nature, was holding down the left side of defense; Jonathan Bornstein got nearly 40 run-outs at the spot; DaMarcus Beasley was reborn a left back for the 2010 World Cup; the Brek Shea experiment fizzled out quickly; Greg Garza was (very) briefly the left back of the future; and more recently, Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler and Edgar Castillo marauded up and down sideline with varying degrees of success.

Too long, didn’t read: the USMNT hasn’t had a steady left back since Arena’s last tenure. A quick glance at the current roster reveals that it’s, well, still lots of the same names. Garza is back from a long-term hip injury, and having made a loan move to MLS expansion side Atlanta United this winter, is likely months from reaching anything resembling his best. Until then, it’s likely Johnson who’ll be played out of position to fill the void (Beasley his likeliest deputy), which is less of a problem now that Christian Pulisic has exploded onto the scene and made the left wing spot his own. Still, Johnson is 29 years old and will be 36 before the 2022 World Cup, so this is likely his final go-round. The door is open for anyone — literally, anyone — to step into the position and claim it as their own. Simply unearthing a capable left back for his successor could go down as Arena’s greatest achievement to date, and he’s already the man who took the Yanks to the 2002 World Cup semifinals quarterfinals (you will not be forgotten, Torsten Frings).

[ MORE: Altidore to join 100-caps club, but can he name the 16 others? ]


Who’s the no. 3 goalkeeper, once and for all?

Tim Howard and Brad Guzan seem set to tussle for the no. 1 and 2 goalkeepers’ jobs until they’re both bald rolling in wheelchairs, thus the age-old question rages on: who’s the deputy’s deputy?

Bill Hamid is the best of the bunch (don’t listen to anyone who tells you differently), but he left camp with a(nother) knee injury, and most are beginning to wonder whether or not he’ll ever be healthy enough to nail down a regular place in the USMNT, pre- or post-Howard/Guzan. That leaves Nick Rimando, David Bingham and Luis Robles, whom I rank in that order, from top to bottom. Sure, Rimando is 37 years old, and he’s lost a bit of the agility and quickness that allowed him to thrive as a 5-foot-10 athletic wonder in net, but he’s been managed closely by the staff at Real Salt Lake in an effort to slow the deterioration, and he’s the only one of the three listed above with more than two caps (he’s got 21).

Reports: Barcelona holding talks with Verratti’s agent

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Barcelona has their eyes set on a new Andres Iniesta.

Sure, projecting anyone to meet Ballon d’Or finalist standards is silly, but news that Barca has had multiple meetings with Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti does inspire comparison hunting.

[ MORE: Klopp explains Lovren extension ]

An influential and creative central midfielder, the 24-year-old Verratti is 8.5 years younger than Iniesta and wowed Barca in the first leg of PSG’s ill-fated UEFA Champions League tie with the Catalans.

Mundo Deportivo, amongst others, reports that Verratti feels life at PSG has gotten stale and that Barca is one of the few clubs that represents a significant jump up in class. He’s also been linked with Real Madrid and Manchester United in the past few transfer windows.

Verratti has a contract through 2020-21, so any purchase will not be cheap considering PSG’s desire to continue growing its status as a UCL contender. The Italian is 21 times capped by the Azzurri.

Klopp talks new Lovren deal, Top Four worries, Watford

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Liverpool announced a new contract for Dejan Lovren on Friday, complete with the requisite “I love my club” comments from the defender.

Then Jurgen Klopp got his hands on a microphone.

The outspoken manager explained that re-signing Lovren to a new “long-term” deal ensures that the Croatian spends the best years of his career with the Reds.

[ MORE: Top PL Storylines ]

He also spoke plainly about Lovren’s perceived struggles and successes since arriving at Anfield from Southampton in 2014.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“If Dejan played for another club you would want to sign him – and pay a lot of money. He is 27, the best time is still to come.”

“If you’d asked fans after the Dortmund game they would said give him a 20-year contract. After the Palace game fans would have said ‘can we find another team who will have him?’ Truth is somewhere in between.”

Turning to Monday’s trip to Watford, Klopp isn’t concerned about the chance that his Reds will open the day outside the Top Four if Man City and Manchester United both win at the weekend.

He also says the Reds could have Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge at Vicarge Road, though Jordan Henderson remains out.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth

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  • Sunderland won 2-1 on Nov. 5
  • Fourth meeting since 1990
  • Sunderland leads all-time 5W-3D-1L

Sunderland looks to keep its faint hopes of Premier League safety alive by managing a season sweep of Bournemouth when the two sides meet at the Stadium of Light on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Black Cats are a mess, having lost to Tees-Wear Derby rivals Middlesbrough on Wednesday and living 12 points back of 17th place Swansea City.

Bournemouth battered Middlesbrough 4-0 last weekend to move seven points clear of the drop zone, and can finish the day in the top half with a win up north.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss David Moyes on calls for him to quit“I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose. There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Bournemouth captain Simon Francis on Sunderland’s woes“It just show how things can happen when clubs are not run properly. If we do lose Sunderland from the Premier League it will be a real shame. They are an enormous club and playing at grounds like theirs is the pinnacle of anyone’s career.”

 

Prediction

The Black Cats haven’t quit, but manage two fewer points than they need, all but heading for the Championship after a 2-2 draw.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Hull City

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  • Hull won 2-1 on Nov. 6
  • Tigers two points clear of drop zone
  • Saints lead all-time 23W-20D-15L

After back-to-back losses to Man City and Chelsea, Saints meet a different kind of desperation when Hull City arrives at St. Mary’s (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With a win, Hull can move five points clear of the final relegation spot and heap pressure on Swansea City, who plays Sunday. With a loss, Marco Silva’s men open the 17th place door for Swans.

[ MORE: JPW on Romeu the Destroyer ]

Since the start of the 2011-12 season in the Championship, Southampton has won six of seven matches against Hull. That seventh, however, was the match at the KCOM Stadium earlier this season, one that saw now-West Ham man Robert Snodgrass spur a Tigers comeback.

Saints open the day four points back of eighth place West Brom, and also hold a match-in-hand on the Baggies.

What they’re saying

Saints boss Claude Puel on slump busting“After two losses it’s important to move forward now and take points on Saturday in front of our own fans. We have to improve in the right areas and find a good balance of play, but also a good clinical edge in both penalty areas.”

Marco Silva on Hull’s away troubles““We have conceded goals on the counter-attack away from home in games when the result has been looking good for us – we cannot make it possible for our opponents to do this to us. The second goal we conceded at Stoke is an example of this – conceded at a time when we were in control of the game. Details like this are making the difference and these are things we must look to change. This is clear to me and I pass this on to my players.”

Prediction

Saints have more quality than Hull, but may not have as much fire in the belly. Still, home field means a lot here and Southampton should reverse the score line from November’s tilt. 2-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic leading the way.